Yo, Flipper, how’s it going?

New research suggests dolphin use unique ‘names’ for each other, but the real moral of the story is to belittle humanity.

Saira Khan

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Don’t fret – the dolphins aren’t taking over the world just yet. But if a steady stream of reports are to be believed, animals are smarter than we thought. For example, the BBC reported on Tuesday that dolphins refer to each other using unique ‘names’, similar to humans. We’ve seen many articles and programmes of the same sort, attempting to lessen the gap between humans and animals – dolphins helping lost whales, sea lions learning the laws of transitivity, chimpanzees completing memory tests in ‘less time than it takes the average person to blink’.

Indeed, the feats of animals can be impressive and publishing this research is important. But the line taken by the popular media is often one of anthropomorphism, an apparent attempt to highlight the relative insignificance of humans in the world, a sort of ‘hey, look, you’re not so special’. Why is there an effort to abolish the distinction between man and beast, and is it a sensible endeavour?

To say that dolphins use individual names or ‘help’ other animals in the way that we help people (or animals) is to leap over too many conceptual boundaries. The latter, in particular, implies a sense of morality and self-awareness; it suggests conscious deliberation and a decision that may even be forward-looking. Unlikely though it may be, perhaps dolphins do think ‘oh my, lost whales, it’s my moral duty to help them out or they may die/I may feel guilty in the future’. But we don’t know that dolphins have such thoughts – and the overwhelming desire of some researchers and journalists to stress such a possibility is concerning.

The reason is overcompensation. This trend seems to be less about understanding animals better, more about accounting for bad human behaviour through belittling our own intelligence. The view of humanity currently held by many members of the public and intellectuals alike is one of disillusionment. Humans, not animals, are responsible for monstrosities such as mass genocide. It is only through our higher intellect (though misled) that we can create something like the Holocaust, that we can find reasons to discriminate and to cause suffering to others. Because of this, many are tempted to knock the human species off its intellectual and moral pedestal and seek to show that we are not superior to beasts.

We should not seek to reduce the importance of humanity simply for the sake of not appearing ‘speciesist’. Such an outlook could only undermine our proper focus – on humanity’s betterment.

Saira Khan is a student at the University of Oxford.

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