Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us by David Niewert


… A study published in 2013 did test captive orcas for imitative learning and found they had exceptional capacities in this regard and that some of these skills might help account for the social behavior of killer whales in the wild, especially group-specific traditions that are handed down from one generation of orcas to another.

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… Sagan once famously observed, “It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English -- up to 50 words used in correct context -- no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.”

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Justin Gregg: “Most scientists, especially cognitive scientists, don’t think that dolphins have what linguists would define as language,” he said. “They have referential signalling, which a lot of animals do -- squirrels and chickens can actually do that, and monkeys -- and they have names for each other. But you can’t then say they have language because human words can do so much more.”

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...It is in the realm of hearing that killer whales’ senses reach another dimension entirely. They not only can perceive the world by the simple reception of sound, as land mammals can, but they are also capable of making sounds that reflect back to them and that, thanks to huge brains capable of translating all this information, enable them to not only see the shape and nature and inhabitants of their world, but to see inside of them. That is a kind of intelligence that is simply beyond our ability to fully comprehend, let alone measure.

At some point, the breadth of a species’ perception (that is, how many different kinds of data it receives from varying sources) and its depth of perception, the level of penetration of reality that its senses provide, should both favor into our assessment of its intelligence. If those are our criteria, then killer whales are definitively, and undeniably, more intelligent than human beings, because their echolocation sense provides both greater breadth and superior depth.

 As Marino puts it: “Orcas may not be very intelligent humans, but humans are really stupid orcas.”

That, in fact, is the root of the problem. Even as we determinedly avoid anthropomorphizing these creatures, we almost reflexively apply a patently anthropocentric definition of intelligence, one involving language and its use. This is a definition that almost automatically places humans atop the heap, since our wired-in instinct for language is arguably one of our greatest evolutionary advantages.

Dolphin scientist Thomas White (along with others) has proposed an alternative approach to defining intelligence, one that is “species-specific”: “The challenges that need to be met simply to stay alive are significantly different on the land and in the water … We need to be careful in making straightforward comparisons between human and dolphin intelligence. It may be like comparing apples and oranges.”