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Scientists say smug dolphins are maybe not so smart after all

Sep 27, 2013

You know how everyone’s all like “Oh! Dolphins are so great! They’re total geniuses! I want to swim with them and/or get one tattooed on my ankle because they’re so super great and smart! They probably have magical healing powers too!” Well, suckers, science says you’re wrong. Dolphins are not even any smarter than chickens. Or meal worms. So there.

In some cases, says [neuroethologist. Paul] Manger, dolphins — which are small whales — are even outdone by goldfish. When goldfish are placed in a bowl, he explains, they at least try to escape by boldly jumping out, whereas dolphins that have been captured in nets won’t even think of jumping to freedom. “The idea of the exceptionally intelligent dolphin is a myth,” Manger concludes.

This is total fact. I know so because I had a suicidal carnie goldfish who always used to jump out of her bowl and who died tragically one day when she did it at a time when my dad wasn’t around to give her CPR. She was also a genius and my mom taught her how to do tricks like the whales at Sea World. Fluffy was way the hell smarter than any dumb dolphin, which is why she was so plagued by existential angst. Fluffy was also not a total rapist, which dolphins definitely are.

As it turns out, the origin of the “dolphins are so super smart” myths come from a neuroscientist named John Lilly who, it seems, may have gone off the rails a bit there.

In the 1950s, physician and neuroscientist John Lilly played the crucial role in the elevation of dolphins from the status of stupid, fish-like creatures with excellent swimming skills to that of underwater know-it-all. In eerie-sounding experiments, Lilly attached electrodes to the brains of living dolphins to stimulate neurons. One day, a dolphin hooked up to his equipment began making loud noises as it approached its horrible death. When Lilly slowed down and played back the audio recordings, he concluded the dolphin was trying to communicate with its tormentors.

After further experiments, Lilly became convinced dolphins had a human-like faculty of speech and attempted to establish contact with the marine mammals. His desire to communicate was so great he administered LSD to himself and the dolphins in the hopes of stimulating conversation.

He soon moved to the American West Coast, where he became a spiritual leader of the hippy generation and wrote books in which he combined New Age ideology with half-baked dolphin research. The animals, Lilly gushed, were “more intelligent than any man or woman.” He even attributed them philosophy, ethics and an “ancient vocal history.”

He sure sounds reliable! And also probably Uri Geller can really bend spoons and pyramids can sharpen razors!

Part of the impetus for Manger and others’ push against the idea that dolphins are like us and somehow “special” is that they believe that conservation efforts shouldn’t be based on which animals we think are the most human. You know, because that’s not really the point of it all.

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