Dolphin Mental Abilities Paper

by Kenneth W. LeVasseur <>



In the early history of research on dolphins there were three experiments which stood out as minimal indicators of dolphin mental abilities. These three experiments were conducted in the sixties and were funded by the U. S. Navy. The way these experiments were received and perceived was a product of the times. In order to be scientifically objective about the research, it should be recognized that this situation was open to influence by the Navy's dolphin program as a funding source. This influence would have to be considered a two-way street because the research would be expected to define aspects of the Navy's dolphin program and the objectives of the program would in turn be expected to define the experiments. These assumptions are relevant to the following interpretations of the research.

The "times", since then, have been composed of a series of changes that saw many interpretations of animal behavior available. The areas of research that favored these conflicting interpretations include behaviorism, the ensuing and redefined cognitive approach to psychology, and sociobiology. The dominant area of research into animal behavior during these "times" was often determined by the applications and/or experimental opportunities offered by each discipline's approach to animal and human behavior. Applications of dolphin behavior are important for the Navy's dolphin program.

The fifties, sixties and early seventies were still in the period of psychological research dominated by behaviorism. The fifties and sixties were also an intense growth period for dolphin research and the development of American oceanariums that could show dolphins to large numbers of people. Behaviorists emphasized objectively observed behavior and stressed testing in the controlled conditions of laboratory settings. The environment's effect on behavior, both negative and positive, was a major component of this testing. The proximity of the development time for oceanariums and research facilities holding dolphins, during the dominance of behaviorism, determined the major form of communication and control for human/dolphin interactions - operant conditioning. This antiquated form of interaction is still used by professional dolphin handlers. Indeed, the premise of this paper is to strongly suggest that the use of operant conditioning for close human/dolphin interaction is obsolete.

The seventies was a period of change as the cognitive school of psychology was revitalized. This discipline of psychology was revived from the earlier work (19th century) of the cognitive structuralists when better experimental designs were eventually developed during the late sixties and early seventies that could demonstrate the mental structures of learning. This discipline gained precedence over the behaviorist school as interest was developed in the process and structures of acquiring knowledge. The cognitive perspective of psychology was responsible for much of the language work with apes and dolphins, an improved approach to communication and influence over behavior. The cognitive approach to psychology is still a leading discipline, but operant conditioning remains the dominant tool of command and control in dolphin and animal holding facilities and is "behind the times". Psychology has not yet reached the point where language is a tool that can supplant operant conditioning as a control medium because language communication between humans and animals is still considered controversial. This situation can change in the near future.

Sociobiology, the study of the biological or genetic basis of behavior, was also on the rise in the late seventies as a biological alternative to the void left by the change of dominance between the behaviorist school of psychology and the cognitive psychologists. Sociobiology stimulated the most recent rendition of the nature/nurture controversy, as genetically determined behavior was shown to be an alternative to many psychological interpretations of the same behavior in both the higher and lower animals.

There are still active behaviorists, sociobiologists an cognitive psychologists: only the percentages of researchers in each discipline getting published and working on what is considered the cutting edge of animal behavior change. Each of these areas of research made an attempt and consistently updates this attempt to explain the behavior of humans and animals within their environmental and social contexts. The eighties involved a decade of debate between the cognitive school of psychology and the sociobiologists of the biological sciences dealing with the parameters of the structure of animal behavior. The sociobiologists have been showing the evolutionary effects of nature on behavior and the cognitive school of psychology has shown the nurturing aspects of environment.

In the nineties, a new approach to animal behavior is being made by the cognitive ethologists with a school of though initiated by Donald Griffin in the late seventies. Cognitive ethology is the study of behavior in contexts closely approximating the natural environment. This approach is basically a compromise between the psychologists and the biologists regarding the study of animal behavior. Ethology is a discipline of zoology, which is one of the biological sciences. Cognitive ethology is a merging of psychology, through cognitive studies, and the biological sciences, through ethology, into a theory producing area of research. One interesting result of the study of cognitive ethology is that the concepts of animal thought and mind have been revived to explain how animals could possibly process environmental and social information.

The point of this short history of the study of animal behavior is that a visit to the original Navy research studying dolphin mental abilities casts a light on the Navy's dolphin program. But for interpretive purposes the light needs to be placed in an appropriate context. This light is bright enough that the very motive to classify the program in 1967 is now one question of this paper. It also raises the possibility that the act of classifying the Navy's dolphin program may have been a disservice to the scientific study of animal behavior. Classification is the denial of technical or scientific information for the public and therefore international consumption for reasons dictated by national security.

1967 was a time when the public had high expectations for the mental and communication abilities of dolphins. These expectations were causing public relations problems for the Navy and dolphin scientists because of public demands to regulate the treatment of these "intelligent" creatures - including closing down the Navy dolphin program. None of the following researchers was incompetent, but the science presented in the scientific and popular literature is inaccurate and misleading to say the least. Because of this biased handling of what should have been stimulating studies, intriguing areas of research have not been pursued in this country - at least not in public.

These Navy experiments were conducted between 1964 and 1968, one of the most intensive periods of investigation into the mental and acoustical abilities of cetaceans. The experiments were:

The Batteau Experiment (1967)
with Puka and Maui

1. Man/Dolphin Communication. The possibility of human-type language acquisition (using whistles) in the bottlenosed dolphin, Tursiops truncatus (1964-1967). For purposes of comparison, the earliest work with chimpanzees using American Sign Language was in 1966 (Gardner and Gardner, 1968, Premack, 1971).

ABSTRACT: "A program of research was conducted over a period of three years to determine the feasibility of developing a man-dolphin language and to investigate to what extent such a language might be developed. Devices were constructed to translate articulated vowel sounds into sinusoidal whistles and to provide real time visual displays of the frequency modulated whistles. Two dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, were found able to respond distinctly to 35 response-demand messages embedded in 5-word spoken sentences.

The Bastian Experiment
with Buzz and Doris

2. The Transmission of Arbitrary Environmental Information (abstract communication) Between Bottlenosed Dolphins, Tursiops truncatus.

ABSTRACT: "This is a report of an investigation of the capacity of a pair of bottlenosed dolphins to perform a cooperative task which required the acoustic transmission of information about an arbitrary visual event in the environment of one of the animals. Each animal was first trained to press one of two paddles, depending on the state of a light signal. Next, while housed in adjacent enclosures, they were required to coordinate their actions in the fixed sequence and within fixed time limits. The light signal to the animal required to respond first was removed, visual contact with the other animal and its light eliminated. The pair continued to perform successfully as long as they were in acoustical contact and the light signal to one of the animals was provided. Their performance success was found to depend directly upon the emission of pulsed trains by the animal receiving the light signal, although it was also found to be directly connected with its emission of whistle signals. The specific nature of this dependency could not be determined."

The Pryor Experiment
Malia and Hou

3. The Creative Porpoise: Training for Novel Behavior, A demonstration of the creative potential of rough toothed dolphins, Steno bredanensis.

ABSTRACT: "Two rough-toothed porpoise (Steno bredanensis) were individually trained to emit novel responses, which were not developed by shaping and which were not previously known to occur in the species, by reinforcing a different response to the same set of stimuli in each of a series of training sessions. A technique was developed for transcribing a complete series of behaviors onto a single cumulative record so that the training sessions of the second animal could be fully recorded. Cumulative records are presented for a session in which the criterion that only novel behavior would be reinforced was abruptly met with four new types of responses, and for typical preceding and subsequent sessions. Some analogous techniques in the training of pigeons, horses and animals are discussed."

These three experiments were successful as demonstrations of dolphin mental abilities and the only limitations demonstrated in the studies were the perceptions of humans, their experimental designs, and the interpretations that were in vogue for the period. But, today's interpretation is only viable through 20/20 hindsight as a result of the animal behavior research trend toward cognitive ethology and the interpretation of animal behavior within environmental contexts. Cognitive ethology seeks to define the limits of animal mind. In this respect, the conclusions of this paper will show that there is a very real need to attempt two-way communication with dolphins using whistles, in a program resembling Batteau's, something the Navy most likely has been doing since they classified their program in 1967. The resulting question for the reader to answer is whether the Navy's classification of their dolphin program, during Batteau's ground-breaking research, was a disservice to the study of animal behavior considering the changes seen in that area of study since 1967.


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