On the Anthropomorphic Interpretation of Animals – Are Dolphins Persons?


I have been seeing a lot of commentary on the recent Science article about whether dolphins should have nonhuman personhood status.


Marino began researching dolphins and determined that they had a brain-to-body-mass ratio that is second only to humans. Human beings have the largest brains, compared to their body mass, of any known animals. Brain size, relative to body size, is believed by many scientists to be a key prerequisite to intelligence, although there are many other factors as well.

So Marino and Reiss turned to the New York Aquarium, which had a couple of male bottlenose dolphins in captivity, to see if they knew who they were.

“We marked them on different parts of their bodies with a magic marker,” Marino said. Each dolphin immediately raced to the mirror, “postured in front of the mirror and positioned itself in strange ways to expose the marked part of its body much the same way that you and I would if we passed a wall with wet paint on it. As soon as we get to the bathroom we would look in the mirror and turn around to see if we got any paint on us.”

Sometimes the researchers used a marker that left no mark, and the result was quite different. The dolphin would dash to the mirror, but if he could not find a mark, he would immediately move on, ignoring the incident. Marino and other researchers have concluded that the experiment showed the dolphins were aware of who they were and knew it was their body they were checking out.

If an animal recognizes “itself” in the mirror, that animal is said to possess self-consciousness, a purportedly advanced cognitive skill traditionally thought to be unique to humans. Thus, the difference between human and nonhuman animals is largely quantitative rather than qualitative.

I see this argument put forward frequently, by journalists and academics alike. On first glance, the argument seems perfectly reasonable. However, if we examine the language involved, we can see than the reasoning is faulty on phenomenological grounds. The key point is that in order to be self-conscious, one must be able to attain genuine selfhood status. Having a body is not enough. It seems to me that a particular type of cognitive savvy is necessary for being a “Who”.

The central claim is that “The experiment showed the dolphins were aware of who they were.” In order to understand this claim, we must know how it would apply to us. To say that Susan “knows who she is” is to say that Susan, could, in principle, tell a story about her past, present, and future life, either to herself, or to someone else. To know who you are is to explicitly know what it is that you do, broadly speaking. For example, I am a graduate student. I know that I must read and study philosophy in order to be who I am. Moreover, part of who I am is who I want to be, namely, an academic philosopher. When existentialists talk about human beings “having a project”, this is what they mean. The project of academia structures my entire being, that is, my entire mode of thrown existence in the world. Accordingly, humans are exceedingly teleological in their mode of being. In normal humans there is a sense of purpose, a sense of direction in one’s life, a directedness-towards, both implicit and explicit. This can be as mundane as getting ready for work work or as grand as martyrdom. Heidegger referred to this curiously strong, sometimes-explicit teleological drive as our “directionality”. As Dasein, humans are always involved in projects only intelligible at longer timescales. Moreover, even at the small-to-medium timescale, our lives are infused with microteleology insofar as we are intimately familiar with our daily surroundings and thrown into daily coping, usually, with some degree of skill.

Furthermore, a subcomponent of this self-knowledge is knowing, in principle, how other people would describe me if they were asked to briefly summarize “who” I am. Knowing how other people would describe me helps me describe myself. In the modern world of facebook and online dating, we are all used to describing ourselves in several brief paragraphs. We have explicit knowledge of what sorts of things we like to do, what our interests are, what music we listen to, what shows we like to watch, and moreover, we routinely practice making such knowledge available to others, verbally or in writing. Personally, I have always  partly defined myself and others in terms of books read, if any. I look at my bookshelf and see my intellectual self extended in time.

Moreover, we dress ourselves in accordance with our levels of social conformity and individuality in order to form a  “look” with the express purpose of making other people think “I like that persons look”. “Forming a look” is something we all do whether we are conscious of it or not.Even if we do not “take care of ourself”, we are well-aware that exactly such a message is being transmitted publically; the question then is whether we care. The amount of time we spend arranging superficial details of our appearance before going out into public is one of the most curious behaviors of our species.

Furthermore, self-knowledge usually consists of being able to form internal narratives about yourself. When making a mistake we might think “How typical of myself to do that” or “I can’t believe I just did that! That isn’t who I am”. Without this possibility of self-expression, the normative structure of social experience remains low dimensional. With human culture and language, the possibility of expression in regards to self-interpretation constructs a high dimensional normative space in which deeper layers of experiential meaning can occur than a purely instrumental calculation affords. For example, in some cultures the language game of honor/dishonor provides a deeper  layer of normativity powerful enough to induce suicide in those who understand themselves to be dishonored. We should never underestimate the brutal emotional force of social shame. Moreover, the distinction between understanding oneself to live a honorable vs. dishonorable life surely requires a logical space of reasons holistically constructed by linguistic discourse and what John Protevi calls “bodies politic”. Such concepts simply don’t make sense outside of a larger social background knowledge involving complex affective experiences such as shame, despair, existential anxiety, wretchedness/pride, honor, eudaimonia, sanctification, etc.

Charles Taylor is the best source on this notion of linguistically constructed self-interpretation being the basis of higher order emotional-cognitive complexity. He says, for example,

Shameful[ness] is not a property which can hold of something quite independently of the experience subjects have of it. Rather, the very account of what shame means involves reference to things – like our sense of dignity, of worth, of how we are seen by others – which are essentially bound up with the life of a subject of experience.

By articulating our feelings through the structures of language (good/bad, desirable/non-desirable, etc.), we set up the possibility of having

a sense of what the good life is for a subject; and this involves in turn our making qualitative discriminations between our desires and goals, whereby we see some as higher and others as lower, some as good and others as discreditable, still others as evil, some as truly vital and others as trivial, and so on.

Accordingly, this sets up the cognitive skill of second-order evaluation, wherein we can desire to have different desires e.g. we can repudiate ourselves for giving in to temptation. Second-order evaluation allows for a high dimensional normative space such that we can evaluate our desires and goals and set up hierarchies. A Christian, for example, might “reorder his priorities” and “put God first” instead of falling prey to the secular world. Although he deeply craves secular freedom, he has a higher-order desire to live a “pure” life.

As we can see then, it requires an extreme anthropomorphism to make the claim that when dolphins notice a mark on their body they are being self-conscious, as opposed to simply being aware-of-a-mark-on-their-body. Self-awareness means being aware of a self not a dot. Dot-consciousness is not self-consciousness. As Skinner proved, the ability to receive proprioceptive information from a mirror is no more philosophically interesting than doing so by normal means of bodily-perception. Are then Dolphins persons? Not like we are.


1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

One response to “On the Anthropomorphic Interpretation of Animals – Are Dolphins Persons?

  1. I absolutely concur with your position in regard to this experiment. Its really no more astounding than observing that when a ribbon is attached to a cat’s tail, it notices.

    At best its an exercise in quantifying the intelligence of the animals – they are using a tool to collect data, after all – but intelligence does not equate with self-awareness. Kanzi the bonobo – another ‘popular sensation’ – is a perfect example. An ability to memorize a surprising number of symbols and routines is not indicative of self-awareness. Programming is programming, whether analogue or digital.

    I enjoyed your piece. Good luck in your endeavours.

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