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No, Dolphins Could Not Create Our Technology


These days, it is sometimes difficult to discern where “science” ends and ideology begins.

This is particularly so when the belief system is infected with anthropomorphism targeted against human exceptionalist — as when Jane Goodall imbued the chimps she so expertly observed with a fictional inner life of her own creation.

Ever since Goodall’s triumphant deconstruction of primatology into at least a semi-ideological enterprise, too many scientists imbue animals with human capabilities.

In our latest example of unreasonable anthropomorphizing, scientists published a study about the high intelligence and complex sociality of dolphins, such as discerning their complex vocalizations, and even, inter-species cooperation.

No question, dolphins and other cetaceans are remarkable animals. But in their enthusiasm, some observers jump the anthropomorphic shark. From the Science Daily story:

Dr Susanne Shultz, an evolutionary biologist in Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said: “As humans, our ability to socially interact and cultivate relationships has allowed us to colonise almost every ecosystem and environment on the planet. We know whales and dolphins also have exceptionally large and anatomically sophisticated brains and, therefore, have created a similar marine based culture.

“That means the apparent co-evolution of brains, social structure, and behavioural richness of marine mammals provides a unique and striking parallel to the large brains and hyper-sociality of humans and other primates on land. Unfortunately, they won’t ever mimic our great metropolises and technologies because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs.”

It’s not about thumbs, but brains. Our exceptional mental capacities and uniquely rational natures allowed us to build technological societies. In the billions of years of life on this planet, no other species has been technological, with perhaps the exception of Neanderthals.

Indeed, chimpanzees have opposable thumbs. They are as smart or smarter than dolphins and, as Goodall so expertly observed, have very complex social systems. They also use aspects of the natural environment as rudimentary tools.

And yet, no chimp has ever created a single technology, defined as “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.”

That’s not a knock against chimps, but a statement about their nature — which, as with dolphins, is limited in potential compared to our own.

We are technological because we are rational, which is one of the aspects of our natures that make us exceptional in the known universe. It’s time for scientists to curb their anthropomorphizing enthusiasm and stick with the science.

Photo credit: vrgoberdhan, via Pixabay.

Cross-posted at The Corner.