Much Ado about Dolphins, even if they don’t wear physics t-shirts

Given the fact that there were hundreds of sessions at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Diego last month, it should come as no surprise that I am still reporting on my experiences there. It was a seemingly endless science smörgåsbord. Hurra!

Of interesting note:

Are dolphins non-human people? According to Thomas White of Loyola Marymount University in Redondo Beach, CA, those cute, cuddly, ever-smiling sea creatures are basically like you and me. But how could this be? I don’t see any dolphins wearing “You Hadron Me at Higgs Boson” t-shirts. But as he discussed in his lecture, a “human” is a member of a species and therefore a biological concept, whereas a “person” is a philosophical idea which engenders certain treatment.
A person, says White, is:
has the ability to experience positive and negative sensations
has emotions
has personality
has higher-order intellect
can solve problems
understand artificial human languages
uses tools
has social intelligence

So based on this list, Data, the cute, cuddly, ever-singing android from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who tragically could never experience emotions, is neither a person nor a human (sorry buddy!). But 20-30 years of scientific research tell us that dolphins are in fact, non-human persons, argues White.

This, of course, raises all sorts of interesting ethical implications such as whether it is morally correct or repugnant to keep dolphins in captivity. White appeared on a panel with two other researchers in dolphin intelligence and all three generally believed that captivity for the sake of human entertainment was not the right thing to do.

[Image courtesy of]

However, Jerry Schubel, President and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA, who served as the “Discussant” for the session on dolphins, had some fascinating comments on the matter.

He agreed wholeheartedly that ethics should prevent us from having dolphin hunts (called drives, these are brutally shown in the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Cove). But he posited that there might be ethical scenarios that would support captivity. If a dolphin was born in captivity, or had been rescued and needed rehabilitation, Schubel argued, then detention would be an acceptable situation. Furthermore, if a dolphin was chronically ill and release would surely lead to death, then again captivity would be ok.

But Schubel was quick to point out that any dolphin captivity must come with “the right conditions, and…have the right conditions to enable it to connect with humans,” such as at aquariums, he said.

“Aquariums have a powerful role to play if we view our collections of these animals as ambassadors to the wild…,” he declared. Aquariums that have dolphins have a wonderful opportunity to affect policies to prevent slaughters, and …to raise the bar to try to get [people] to agree on how to keep these animals in captivity.” He joked that the fish in his aquarium have much better health insurance than he does.

Schubel went on to say “when families watch these animals perform, they are emotionally connected [with the dolphins].”

Now of course this public declaration came only a week before a Sea World trainer was killed by an orca in Florida. I am sure that the families who were watching that show felt emotionally connected to that animal, not to mention the trainer. And ultimately, what good did it serve the trainer to connect with the creature in captivity?

It is clear that the dolphin debate, and the orca-related rebuttal, will continue. Continued scientific research in this realm is the right course of action – we need facts, not unsupported philosophies, after all.

But the next time you see a dolphin grin in your direction, return the gesture, for he is surely more than fish, and perhaps, even more than man.

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