Are Dolphins More Intelligent than Humans?


Years ago when I was in the Navy, whenever we pulled out of port I’d watch dolphins glide along in front of our ship jumping out of the water in spectacular fashion. Their sheer power and beauty are difficult to describe unless you’ve witnessed them first-hand. As I’d watch them swim along in such a graceful manner, I’d find myself wondering what they thought of our ship and if they were self-aware or could communicate with one another. At the time I knew little about dolphins (I’m still learning today) but I couldn’t help thinking to myself that these beautiful creatures are probably much more intelligent than we are.

As I monitor the important work being done to find extraterrestrial intelligence today, I often consider how we might communicate with ETI if/when we do finally connect. Pioneering work done over the past decades to develop an understanding of dolphin communication may serve as a guide when the time comes.

In 1961, the publication of Man and Dolphin (written by John Lilly) brought dolphins into our public consciousness and inspired a great deal of speculation regarding the degree of their intelligence and the sophistication of their language. Many people believed that a time would come when humans could engage in meaningful and even philosophical conversations with these amazing creatures. Numerous experiments were conducted over the years that followed, many of them designed to test dolphins’ abilities to follow simple language and signal commands. Oftentimes the dolphins would not only perform the desired tasks, but would do so with a certain flair and obvious sense of humor.

One of the observations made by scientists early on was that each individual dolphin develops a unique whistle, or call, through which it identifies itself within a group. Many people perceived this trait as evidence that these creatures possess a sophisticated social order and understanding. After all, each dolphin must not only create a personal signature sound, but also remember and distinguish between the signature sounds of every other member of a group.

Dolphins produce a wide array of sounds aside from their distinguishing whistles. These range from lower-pitched grunts to the clicks that they employ for echolocation (a highly developed ability that enables them to locate even tiny objects underwater while blindfolded). Many scientists have hypothesized that these diverse sounds actually comprise an extensive form of language that dolphins use to communicate with one another. The general demeanor of these creatures – oftentimes playful, humorous, and responsive – suggests that they could be capable of such a level of comprehension.

Oftentimes, the conclusions drawn from experiments involving animals end up being misleading for one simple reason: we humans want animals to exhibit intelligence according to our own ideas of what intelligence is. Many animal communicators have expressed the opinion that we’d be better off letting other creatures of this world speak to us in their own fashion, rather than trying to coax them into imitating human expression. Dolphins have often been encouraged to mimic human traits and behaviors. Many will even occasionally parrot certain words of our languages. But we remain unaware of the true depth of comprehension that dolphins possess. At best, we can only gauge it intuitively.

Dolphins aren’t equipped with the kinds of limbs necessary for creating tools, buildings, and machines like humans are. Perhaps their very physical makeup makes them more disposed towards communicating with each other in elaborate ways (some scientists have surmised that dolphin “speech” may consist of as many as 60,000 “words”, or more). We may be able to more fully grasp the intricacies of their minds if we surrender our own ideas about what intelligence should be used for and instead, observe how these creatures express themselves in their native ways. Until that time comes, we most likely will continue to debate which is the smarter animal – human or dolphin. My money is riding on the latter…


Vincent M. Janik (2013). Cognitive skills in bottlenose dolphin communication. Trends in Cognitive Science, 17 (4), 157-159 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2013.02.005

Connor, R. C. (2007). Dolphin social intelligence: complex alliance relationships in bottlenose dolphins and a consideration of selective environments for extreme brain size evolution in mammals. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 362 (480), 587-602 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2006.1997

Recommended Reading:

  • Lissie

    I think that dolphins could very well be smarter. I’ve absolutely loved them since I was four, and have studied them ever since! (Sorry to brag.) I’ve read that the intelligence of a living creature more depends on the comparison of the brain to the body than on the size of the brain in general. It also depends on how much of the brain is even used. Dolphins have a larger brain ( in comparison to the body, as said) than humans. Just a few weeks ago, I was able to see dolphins for the first time out in the wild, and I think you’re right, it’s hard to understand the astounding beauty of them without seeing them.

    • hello

      i would say dolphins and humans are about the same the only thing is that dolphins don’t have any hands or feet instead of flippers so they can’t build thing but if they did they would be rivaling humans

      • Dolphin

        I agree, but if you look closely at the bone structure of dolphin fins, there are actually 5 fingers on each. So I think, they could develop hands in the future.

  • Austin

    A rock could be more intelligent than you if you look at it long enough

    • good1


  • Hallie

    I think Dolphins are smarter than humans because we can’t do stuff like they can do that will be crazy !!!!!!!

  • Dolphin Eater

    dolphins are not smarter than humans. That’s the reason humans rule this planet, and if we wanted to, we could get rid of all the other living creatures on the planet. But we don’t, because, we don’t want to. Dolphins cannot grab things, pick things up, think in the complex way we do. This should be pretty obvious.

    • Will

      It’s really hard to tell which one is smarter. I bet some dolphins are smarter than some people in this world. They have their own names and use tools such as sponges. They have up to 20 percent of their brain developed, but we only have less than 10. In your case, I would say all of them are smarter than you. You cruel minded animal eater.

    • iHadtoAskAnIdiotAQuestion

      Please explain what your point was, cuz clearly im an idiot for asking, but what in holy hell does grabbing things and picking things up in a “complex way” have to do with intelligence??

      • mm

        I have to agree just because dolphins dont have hands foes not mean they are not as intelligent as humans. Like Bropro said we have war. Once more humans become intouch with there inner peace or minds will begin to expand maybe one day well be using 20% of our brains like dolphins!!

        • ensor

          What does picking stuff up have to do with intelligence.. it just means we have evolved into getting a thumb

          • I think what the original commenter was referring to is the idea that because we have opposable thumbs, we’ve moved to the top of the food-chain as a species. As several of you have pointed out however, this does not equate to intelligence. The article is solely focused on intelligence – something that is admittedly hard to define. Thanks for reading/commenting everyone.

            • Movies Aren’t 100% True

              Pretty sure that we use 100% of our minds.
              Don’t trust everything from the movie “Lucy”
              No, reaching “100%” does not allow us to control time and space and teleport and stuff like that. Seriously.

              • Movies Aren’t 100% True

                Oops, I was meant to reply to mm.

              • BroPro

                you say human use 100% of their minds?, ok here, I’m going to be nice and try to explain you because I hate stupid peoples, jk.

                1st thing of all, how would we test how many % the dolphin use in their mind, 2nd thing of all, if human/we use 100% of our mind we would be dead already because it would be too much information, only for our eye… it is already million bits, if we use 100% of our mind… it would be too much because you would be aware of everything, if you take a certain drug, you will be aware of everything and can’t do anything because it would be too much, the smartest/genius guy can maybe control around 10% of their minds, no human ever control 20% of our minds, if you go to Srilanka or somewhere else where a lots idiots peoples and lying peoples are… they only control 0.000000000001% of their mind, maybe even less than that.

                I’m just telling you what IK, don’t get mad if your from Srilanka :p

                • Bach Tran

                  That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Our brains are practically at full capacity when we use them.

                  There’s no evolutionary advantage in having an energy intensive organ when you use a TINY fraction of its capacity. Use your brain 100% like me unless you want to make stupid comments like yours.

    • BroPro

      I can’t see why dolphin is more stupid than human because they cannot grab things or pick up things… that is the most stupid comparing I have ever heard… than why don’t you compare human and dolphin swimming? can we swim faster? can we understand their language while they can? can we do barrel roll by swimming off the water? do we have a sonar to see same as them as a radar?… it’s just the same…. it’s such a stupid comparative, but I would say dolphin are smarter than human because… do they have a war and kill each other?, do they kill over 1000 organism of their own species? not like human… we have been killing over billion of peoples for a long time like in world war 1, 2, etc!, you know why we did it? because human are such an idiot to share and help it other, we are too stupid to get control by moneys, if someone pay u 25 million dollars and would you be their slave? YES because human are such an idiot also we can easily get brain wash… specially by the federal reserve and the government! that’s the biggest comparative. So don’t compare… we have hands and they don’t, think before you talk pls.

    • BroPro

      And btw dolphin eater, if you say human is smarter than dolphin than y are you being such an idiot?.

      • Isobel

        dolphins are definatly smarter than some humans

    • Isobel Aylmer

      I think dolphins are much smarter than humans you don’t see them inventing ways to poison the world they live in or trying to buldozer coral reefs. They also don’t go to war and kill each other which probably means they will out last the human spieces unless we kill them first. They help and look after each other which we don’t as humans are generally only self aware. There world doesnt just revolve arond money and power and they don’t listen blindly to orders or anything. They also live in a way that idealists would call the perfect system. Humans don’t rule the planet. Some idiots might think they do but rule means ‘exercise ultimate power or authority over (an area and its people)’ so if we were really ruling over it we would be able to give it orders. Like telling volcanos when to erupt because that would be exersizing ultimate power over the planet. The only things on this planet who are ruled over a humans all the time we just follow leaders even if they are corrupt like we are unable to think for our self. I think that the pressure on conforming and hardly tring to make a positve change really makes us on the the stupidest animals the only reason we have make a ‘citilized’ community that feels it is top is because we have oposible thumbs and so can make weapons to destroy everything in are path that makes us so great and everything else infirer.

      • nicole

        You my friend deserve an award for that comment. I fully agree with you 100%. I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking this way

  • PutorkdxForbaskat

    Dolphins: have sex for pleasure, masturbate with decapitaded fish, get together with other dolphins to get high with puffer fish nerve toxins, can recognize other dolphins by “names”, can recognize old friends even 20 years later…

    Humans: gotta work at a terrible place to have a house, clothes, food…to buy usless things…. theres war…theres religion bringin people appart… theres a rich men and a kid starving to dead walking on the same street..

    Let me analyse who’s the smartest………………..

  • Jatin Prakash

    The fact that we have the ability to kill billions and eradicate the hurt in years/months/days/hours/possibly seconds make sus more intelligent.

Post Navigation