I have been lucky enough to swim with dolphins twice in my life. Once it was as a “swim with dolphins” experience in Mexico where I was pushed around by the dolphins in an awesome little display of power and warned not to “pet them on the tummy, or they might get horny, and, by extension, violent.” It is a strange thing to be cautious not to arouse a cetacean.
The second time was snorkeling, when a pod of dolphins came out of the deep and decided to investigate my dad and me for a few minutes before getting on their way. In both cases, the dolphins were visibly intelligent. It was like the uncanny valley in reverse – instead of a lifelike body with dead eyes, I was confronted with unsettlingly intelligent eyes within an inhuman body.
Dolphins have long been recognised as among the most intelligent of animals but many researchers had placed them below chimps, which some studies have found can reach the intelligence levels of three-year-old children. Recently, however, a series of behavioural studies has suggested that dolphins, especially species such as the bottlenose, could be the brighter of the two. The studies show how dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and can think about the future.
It has also become clear that they are “cultural” animals, meaning that new types of behaviour can quickly be picked up by one dolphin from another.
In one study, Diana Reiss, professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York, showed that bottlenose dolphins could recognise themselves in a mirror and use it to inspect various parts of their bodies, an ability that had been thought limited to humans and great apes.
In another, she found that captive animals also had the ability to learn a rudimentary symbol-based language.
Other research has shown dolphins can solve difficult problems, while those living in the wild co-operate in ways that imply complex social structures and a high level of emotional sophistication.
What makes the assertion of dolphin personhood so important is that the first recognition of personhood rights in a non-human, even if limited, will have tremendous, spectacular ripple effects. If we accept dolphins are non-human persons, say, with limited rights akin to that of a human child then here are some logical conclusions one might be able make:
1. Dolphins could have limited sovereignty rights, making the oceans they patrol effectively their territory. The ocean might become a UN protectorate.
2. Dolphins would no longer be in zoos and aquariums. It would be tantamount to imprisonment.
3. Alternatively, state funding for the study of dolphins would skyrocket. To ensure the law is accurate and neither a farce nor insufficient, a very accurate, very clear understanding of dolphin intelligence would be needed.
4. Dolphin deaths would become literal murders and deaths resulting from fishing would become genocide.
Without a near global consensus on the issue, it will be nearly impossible to recognize dolphin personhood. Can you imagine the equivalent of the COP15 dealing with international animal rights?
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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