Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Interpreting Orca Intelligence

It was recently in the news that dogs, on average, are as smart as a two year old human child in performing some tasks, and in some ways are considered to rival four year olds in their ability to understand both language and simple arithmetic.

And once again, I started thinking about orcas and their large brains, and about how we humans have a difficult time in assessing the intelligence of other species. We want to be able to measure them using ourselves as yardsticks, we weigh and measure their abilities based upon our own...yet those measurements inevitably fall short because other species are adapted so differently.

Nonetheless, until science is able to unravel the mystery of animal intelligence, most of us are comfortable with comparing animals to ourselves and to other animals. I think the real problem comes when we put a 'spin' on what we see, it causes us to develop beliefs and attitudes about a species before we truly understand its nature or abilities.

To illustrate this, I've included three YouTube videos all based on footage of the same orca encounter in Antarctica. I was able to embed two of them here, the third would only allow a link - but it is worth the trouble to view it, because it sensationalizes the event and makes speculations. Plus it changed the outcome...which was actually a happy one.

CNN's version - concise.

A Spectator's footage - longer with more detail.

Animal Planet's version: Dramatic and misleading, but interesting.

The point here is that we can see the intelligence of the orcas in action, no one can reasonably challenge that. But we don't know, really, how the orcas communicated during the event, nor do we know their motivation -- and the things we see in the media can be misleading.

So are they smart? Definitely. Someday we will have an idea of how they compare to us, but in the meantime we have to be careful that we don't form concepts that are based on misinterpretation.

After all, the fact that the orcas chose not to kill the seal tells us as much about them as does their brilliant hunting strategy.

1 comment:

  1. The fact that no orcas worldwide (except in captivity) have ever harmed a human being also tells us much about their ability to make conscious choices about how to treat other animals. But like you say: "we don't know, really, how the orcas communicated."
    When Rendell and Whitehead wrote Culture in Whales and Dolphins (2001) they summed up the findings that each orca community eats its own severely restricted diet, uses their own discrete repertoire of vocalizations, and maintains their own prescribed mating practices. The paper, published in the Journal of Behavioural and Brain Sciences, established that: “The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties.”

    But they didn't want to venture any guesses about how orcas communicate, or how they transmit their cultural rules and traditions. They realize that “...understanding process (cultural transmission) is crucial to our understanding of the product (culture)” but they just don't even want to talk about it: “ attempt is made to deduce what particular form of social learning underlies the observed patterns.” And…“we know virtually nothing about the actual learning mechanisms cetaceans employ.”
    Then they hint at what they suspect: “Human culture is intimately linked to both language and symbolism, but there is currently no empirical basis for discussing the role or non-role of language and symbolism in cetacean culture …”
    And they say: “Cetacean cultures appear to possess other attributes that have otherwise been restricted to humans. In particular, we are aware of no phenomena outside humans comparable to the distinctive, stable and sympatric vocal and behavioural cultures which appear to exist at several levels of killer whale society.”
    So apparently the reason we still don't know how the orcas who spared the seal communicated their intentions to one another is that the scientists don't want to talk about it. Cetology (the study of whales, dolphins and porpoises) is firmly founded in biology, and biology includes little or no discussion of language use by animals, so biologists have no language to discuss language. That's the ceiling on our knowledge of how orcas communicate.


Candace Calloway Whiting