Dolphin Cognition and Behavior: A Comparative Approach

By Ronald J. Schusterman; Jeanette A. Thomas et al. | Go to book overview

19 Social Complexity and Cooperative Behavior in Delphinids

Jack W. Bradbury University of California, San Diego

A persistent obsession in much of the cetacean literature is a justification for including these mammals in the ranks of the more sagacious organisms. Although claims have been made for sophisticated reciprocal altruism ( Connor & Norris, 1982), elaborate social and moral capacities ( Lilly, 1967), and considerable semantic abilities (this volume), one not privy to this obsession finds much of the literature a difficult mix of fact and fancy. There is frequent "bootstrapping" in this field. Sometimes it takes the form of an assertion that cetaceans are "higher mammals" and then uses this assumption to interpret poorly described behaviors in favor of the assertion; while a good fit between the assertion and its consequences is necessary to prove the point, it is not a sufficient condition since other interpretations may give as good or better fits. Another form rests on a reciprocal empathy among cetacean investigators: Accepting that porpoises have "been shown" by psychologists and neuroanatomists to be intelligent, socioecologists interpret the highly unstable composition of delphinid groups as evidence of a very complex social order; psychologists and neuroanatomists then assume that because social organization in porpoises has "been shown" to be complex, the large brains of these animals must reflect high intelligence. We are all such "specialists" nowadays that it takes extraordinary breadth (or gall) to challenge the evidence from another discipline; for this particular taxon, the widely accepted faith in their status as "higher animals" makes the exercise of such cross-disciplinary critiques even less well received. The result is an edifice that, while intriguing, seems to an outsider quite fragile.

It seems to me that "complexity" can and ought to be defined in a way that is both operational and comparative. As referents, the more easily studied terrestrial mammals and birds can be invoked as counterpoint to the frequently

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