The Morality of Dolphins (and Ourselves)

What can dolphin behavior teach us about ourselves?

My oldest son is a budding zoologist. At his request, we read aloud The Dolphins of Shark Bay by Pamela S. Turner.[1] Shark Bay, Australia, is an ideal location for studying dolphins since the same bottlenose dolphins return to it year after year; the geography of the place also makes it relatively easy for scientists to observe them. Some of the dolphins of Shark Bay (and nowhere else in the world) have been observed using tools, a fascinating and extremely rare phenomenon in the non-human animal world. They dive deep to retrieve sponges, balance them on their rostrum (what looks like their “nose”), and then use them to flush out certain fish that dwell among sea rubble that would otherwise injure the dolphins. The scientists track how many “spongers” they observe and whether the behavior is passed on from mother to calf.

One intriguing fact about these dolphins is that they do not have one fixed way of hunting for their food. Some use the sponging method described above. Others engage in more straightforward hunting in open water using their famous echolocation. Some chase certain fish into a big group and then force them to swim right out of the water. The dolphins then take the risk of beaching themselves in order to eat and then make their way back into the water. Some chase fish into large shells and then shake them out. Others slam into sea birds to steal their fish. One dolphin, described as a “celebrity” among her peers, learned how to dive deeper than is typical for her species in order to catch an unusually large type of fish. Mother dolphins are particularly pressed to use their creativity to find food since they are solely responsible for the survival of their calves.

Is it legitimate to speak of “creativity” among dolphins? Yes, for the following reason: the higher the intelligence, the less rigid the instinctual behavior, and the greater the room for freedom of choice. The dolphins use their intelligence to discover different methods of hunting and even pass them on to their children. By contrast, less intelligent animals, such as insects, display more rigid instinctual behavior. Sand wasps, for example, are famous among entomologists for not being able to deviate from a certain sequence of actions related to prey and burrows.[2]

We, like the dolphins, share in this freedom of choice that enables us to survive and thrive in countless different settings. There is not just one sort of environment needed for human flourishing. The incredible variety of the saints—all times, places, educational levels, and cultural backgrounds have produced saints—proves this point. No matter our situation, we can use our God-given intelligence to work and thrive, and our children benefit from our efforts (or suffer from our lack thereof).

Another thing dolphins and humans have in common is a prolonged infancy. Dolphin calves usually nurse from their mothers for three or four years and stay with them even longer. They also spend significant amounts of time playing with other young dolphins. Like freedom of choice, a long state of dependency on parents is correlated with intelligence: “lower” animals are born self-sufficient whereas “higher” animals remain with their parents for varying lengths of time. The years spent with mom and playing with other young dolphins prepare the dolphin for the myriad of challenges of dolphin society and life in the open sea. As Hunt puts it, “a juvenile dolphin’s world resembles middle school. But with sharks.”[3]

Dependence in infancy is even more pronounced in humans. Child development specialist Dr. Stuart Shanker writes that “compared with the rest of the animal kingdom, the human brain at birth is remarkably immature for a remarkably long time.”[4] (New parents figure that out pretty quickly.) Human babies are basically embryos outside of the womb and need to be treated as such in order to thrive; their brains have lots of growing to do in a very short time. Yet that state of helplessness is the necessary context for the formation of a strong parent-child bond. As humans grow, we need interactions with others to become fully mature. Though we may not often have literal sharks to contend with, we certainly need strong bonds with other humans to engage well with the inevitable challenges of life. [5]

A further intriguing aspect of The Dolphins of Shark Bay is that the scientists do not hesitate to pass judgment on the animals. Certain dolphin mothers are praised as “attentive” and “hard-working,” qualities that lead to their calves’ success.[6] In contrast, one particular dolphin is described as “a lousy mom” who “ignores her calves,” none of whom have survived to adulthood.[7] Such a moral judgment is only possible because of the freedom available to dolphins. It would make no sense to speak of the morality of a less intelligent animal that simply follows its fixed instinctual behavior. For example, after drone bees mate with the queen bee, they are kept out of the hive to starve to death.[8] Such behavior sounds cruel and heartless, but those words do not really apply to bees following their instincts. Unlike the dolphin, the bee is not free to choose otherwise.

It is also our freedom which renders us praiseworthy for our good choices and blameworthy for our bad ones. Our current cultural climate does not tolerate passing judgment on human beings, but the ease with which scientists can judge dolphins is evidence for the objectivity of certain moral standards. As intelligence increases, so does freedom of choice; both are prerequisites for morality.

We have been taught, and rightly so, about the discontinuity between ourselves and the animals, yet we should not be afraid to examine and learn from the continuity as well. Ultimately, in human life, intelligence, freedom, and dependence create the necessary context for love.

[1] New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013.


[3] Turner, p. 45.

[4] Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), p. 50.

[5] Ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre explores the centrality of dependence in human life and the attendant virtues that we need to develop in his book Dependent Rational Animals (the title is his definition of us). He also talks a lot about dolphins.

[6] Turner, p. 17.

[7] Ibid, p. 18.


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