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Opposable Thumbs


Here is an email I received in response to one of my essays.

Opposable Thumbs

Victor Paul Webster : victor.webster@studentmail.newcastle.edu.au : 2002-11-01

Your essay made very interesting reading, although I believe it to be a tad extreme; I think it is at least erring on the right side of things. Suffice to say I definitely believe whale & dolphin intelligence — let alone most other animals — to be vastly underestimated by the majority of people.

I have often used your opposable thumbs argument to demonstrate why other animals have not achieved what man has, despite still being intelligent, although that argument can also be used against us. Humans evolved bigger brains after opposable thumbs. They evolved them because of opposable thumbs (those that could think how to use their hands better survived better, so the thinkers bred). But the fact is that dolphins and whales still have bigger brains regardless.

Even if dolphins and whales were many times more intelligent than us, there is no way they could evolve manipulating tools to perform experiments. They would all have to be theoretical physicists, working purely mathematically. Alternatively, they could learn to communicate with lesser species endowed with hands and persuade them to act on their behalf.

Every species has its own idea of what is important and what is beautiful. To a male manatee, a female manatee is far more appealing that any human bathing beauty. We humans greatly value the ability to construct things and the sort of intelligence needed to design such constructions. To some other species, this endeavor may seem as trivial and pointless as building giant sand castles. There is some evidence that much of what the whale brain thinks about is its complex social relationships with every other member of the pod. Our inability to get along without killing each other and polluting the planet would be convincing evidence to the whales that we humans are terminally challenged in the intelligence department. After all, the crucially important intelligence is the intelligence that ensures long term survival. Humans as a species are clearly lacking even the most rudimentary common sense instincts for self-preservation.

But because of the influence of opposable thumbs on the evolution of our minds, I maintain that dolphins and whales think very differently than us. Probably not as logically because they’ve never really needed to. They didn’t have to solve puzzles like how to make fire and keep themselves warm during ice ages. Their blubber did it for them. They never needed tools and indeed, they couldn’t make them even if they wanted to.

We do know at least that music is important to the humpback whales. Every year the community of whales by consensus composes a new song and each individual member is expected to compose a 20 minute theme and variation on it. Every humpback participates in this activity. From a humpback perspective, we humans are defective. Only a very few geniuses even attempt to compose music of any kind.

Their minds are probably every bit (or even more) powerful than our own, but this does not mean they think and work in the same way. In fact, I strongly suspect that their very powerful minds work in a very different and alien way than our own, sufficiently enough so that they are most probably not as — what we call — intelligent as us, although their minds are probably just as powerful Kind of like comparing a powerful computer and a powerful car — two different things.

I once asked John Lilly what he thought the dolphins did with their large brains. He said, Something else., in other words, an activity that humans don’t do and for which we have no name. I asked if there was any way I could ever get a hint at what this was. He said, Yes, swim with them. I did. It is indeed something else. What I find so strange is how many people are willing to pontificate on the intelligence of dolphins while simultaneously refusing to get in the water with them for even 20 minutes. A dolphin cannot argue with a mind so closed it refuses even a face to face encounter.

Just my 2 cents.

BTW, I know you said similar things in different words, just giving my own opinions. Comparing human intelligence to dolphin intelligence is probably a totally alien comparison to the extent that the word intelligence is inappropriate (and possibly, but not necessarily inferior) to describe the dolphins.

Intelligence was once defined as the thing that IQ (Intelligence Quotient) tests measure. It would be interesting to see how well a human did on a test designed by a dolphin or humpback whale. We humans don’t even understand the most rudimentary elements of humpback musical composition. Our music would sounds as monotonous as a leaf blower to them.


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