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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Beautiful Minds

Air Date: Week of

Dolphins might not look like apes, but their brains work similarly. (Photo: South Florida Water Management District)

Dolphins and apes have a lot in common. After humans, they have the biggest brains. And both mammals use tools, are social, and highly communicative. Biologist Maddalena Bearzi and primatologist Craig Stanford explore these similarities in their book “Beautiful Minds: the Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins” and speak with host Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. A bottle-nosed dolphin is about as closely related to a gorilla as a mouse is to an elephant. But according to the authors of the new book “Beautiful Minds: the Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins,” those animals – and we humans – have a lot in common. We’re mammals, we have big brains, complex social lives, communicate, and can use tools. Maddalena Bearzi, a dolphin biologist, is co-author of the book.

BEARZI: These dolphins basically use a sponge, and they put it on the top of their beak to protect themselves from abrasive sand and toxic animals they can find on the bottom when they look for food.

GELLERMAN: I recently spoke with Maddalena Bearzi, and her co-author, primatologist Craig Stanford, about dolphins and apes.

STANFORD: Here you have these two animals that we’re all familiar with, and we think of them as being just utterly different. What could be more different than an animal that lives in the ocean, is shaped like a cruise missile, doesn’t have any arms or legs in a real sense, and then you have another animal that it lives in the forests of Africa and Asia, and kind of looks like us, but with lots of body hair. And in fact, there are striking parallels. And so we wrote the book because there’s an emerging awareness in the scientific community, and maybe not yet in the public, of just how interestingly similar and parallel these two very different mammals are. And of course, what they tell us about the origins and the nature of human intelligence, and of human nature.

BEARZI: Dolphins and whales, cetaceans in general are very smart. They have a lot in common with us. They can form alliances, how we do, they have extremely complex society. How we describe in the book, they can be clever politicians.

STANFORD: I guess the key question is how do we define intelligence? I mean, intelligence is probably best defined in evolutionary terms as being a survival skill. And so you have a lot of animals out there in the world that of course lower animals don’t need intelligence to cope with their day-to-day struggles, and they have done very well, some of them, for hundreds of millions of years with tiny, tiny brains. For humans, and our closest relatives, and also for this other group of animals, the dolphins, big brains are highly adaptive. They’re highly useful and important in increasing their reproductive success and increasing their survival success.

GELLERMAN: Maddalena Bearzi, you write that dolphins not only have language, but that there was a neurophysiologist, John Lilly, who said he could speak dolphinese?

BEARZI: (chuckles) Yes, exactly. John Lilly in the sixties thought that he could talk to dolphins, so spent a lot of time with these animals in captivity trying to break this language barrier between human and dolphins. Things didn’t go too well, unfortunately, but dolphins have some type of language that is not exactly like ours – when you do research, you can put a hydrophone in the water and listen to the whistle of these dolphins. We discover a few years ago that these animals can even have a signature whistle, and basically signature whistle are sounds that they make to recognize each other.

GELLERMAN: What about the great apes? Do they have languages?

STANFORD: Well in their natural environment, you know, in an African forest, let’s say, then they have a very complicated communication system. They – chimpanzees - use long calls, long-distance calls to stay in touch with each other, they have short contact calls that indicate everything from submission to anger and so forth. They don’t have what we would call language in human terms in artificial settings, where you’ve had baby chimps, and other great apes, reared in human homes as though they were human children. And in those cases, many famous studies have been done showing that they do develop, you know, rudimentary language capabilities using sign language, or using some other means of communication, because they just don’t have the mechanical means in the tongue and the palate and so forth to actually speak. But they develop language to the level of, let’s say, a human toddler, which is, which is quite a profound thing.

(Courtesy of South Florida Water Management District)

GELLERMAN: How is your great ape sign language?

STANFORD: (chuckles) How is my great ape sign language? Not nearly good enough. And I’ve actually – I’ve had very, very, you know, trivial little conversations in sign language with some of the famous sign language-using chimps, like Washoe, but using a translator, because I don’t speak sign language.

GELLERMAN: And Dr. Bearzi, can you whistle like a dolphin?

BEARZI: I try sometimes, but it doesn’t seem to work very well.

GELLERMAN: Give me an example.


STANFORD: That was great! Oh, excellent, I’ve never heard that before.

GELLERMAN: Maddalena Bearzi, what do you think of these places where you can swim with the dolphins?

BEARZI: I’m actually, and probably the public won’t like my answer, but I’m actually very contrary [to] swimming with the dolphins. If you look at dolphins in the wild, these animals live in an open environment. They have this extremely complex society. If you put these animal in a tank to allow people to swim with the dolphins, you really take away a lot of their life. Sometimes these animals come close to us because they’re curious, even when we do research, but we need to respect their environment; we need to respect their habitat.

GELLERMAN: You write in the book that the dolphins at one point formed a ring around a girl who was trying to commit suicide by drowning herself in the ocean – you say they protected her. And I’m wondering, did they know what they were doing? Or is it us interpreting what they were doing?

BEARZI: Yeah, it’s very difficult to say. The dolphins formed – it’s true, form a ring around this girl, and then they left after we took the girl that was actually committing suicide in our boat to save her. It could be just our interpretation – it’s, there are many cases in the past where dolphins are thought to save humans, but we don’t really have a scientific proof for that.

GELLERMAN: There are four species of great apes, right?

STANFORD: Yes. There are gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and chimpanzees.

GELLERMAN: And you write, what, there’s just about a quarter of a million left on the planet.

STANFORD: Yeah, I mean there are seven billion people today, and chimpanzees are the most numerous of the great apes in the wild, and they number probably fewer than 200,000 in the wild, and all of the other three great apes have been reduced to only in the – a few thousand, or tens of thousands per species.

BEARZI: Same things is happening for dolphins. Most of the species are threatened or endangered species. For the first time, we’re seeing species of dolphins getting extinct under our own eyes – it’s a river dolphin in the Yangtze River in China.

STANFORD: The problems facing the great apes today mostly revolve around habitat loss, you know forest being cut down, and then also direct human problems like hunting. Because bush meat, which is a term Americans tend not to know, is a profound problem for the great apes. Chimps and gorillas, and bonobos, are eaten, and their meat is sold at very high prices in African markets.

BEARZI: One of the main reason, I think, why Craig and I wrote this book is not only to talk about all the parallel of these amazing animals that are so close to us, but also to bring attention to the public the status in which these animal found themselves today.

GELLERMAN: Well I want to thank you both very much.

STANFORD: Thanks a lot.

BEARZI: Thank you. You’re welcome.

GELLERMAN: Maddalena Bearzi is co-founder and president of the Ocean Conservation Society. Craig Stanford is co-director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at USC. Their new book is called “Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins.”



To learn more about the book “Beautiful Minds,” click here.


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