Whales and Dolphins Act a Lot Like Humans

Everybody dreams of making a dolphin friend. Visiting them down at the harbor every day, tossing them a fish every now and then, eventually learning their language and asking if they can introduce you to the King of the Sea. What, is that just us? Well, anyway, our dream might not be so far off. Dolphins and whales are a lot like us, and that could tell us a thing or two about human evolution.

Under the Sea

We've long known that whales and dolphins are different from other animals. Many species of dolphins have been observed using tools, and researchers figured out that orcas speak in a variety of "dialects" back in 1990. But a new study set out to figure out exactly how intelligent, social activities and structures were spread throughout the cetacean family. They found that whales and dolphins actually demonstrate a wide range of activities that we usually associate with humans and our closest relatives. Take a look:

  • Complex Alliance Relationships: Whales and dolphins often work together for mutual benefit. Sometimes, they even work with humans, and working with other species is another trait on the list.
  • Social Transfer of Information: Unlike most animals but very much like humans, many cetaceans learn from their elders instead of acting on instinct. That's how you end up with regional hunting techniques and "dialects".
  • Alloparenting: Alloparenting is the practice of raising children other than your own, and it's not very common outside of humans. Cetaceans do it, though, and they also engage in social play.

What really interested researchers in this study wasn't the range of behavior that they observed, but a correlation they noticed between brain development and social complexity. And that correlation might tell us a thing or two about how we ended up so smart as well.

The Cultural Brain

If dolphins and whales develop more complex societies the more complex their brains are, it supports a longstanding hypothesis explaining the impetus behind human evolution. It's called the Cultural Brain Hypothesis, and it was proposed by Robin Dunbar in 1998. Basically, it says that big brains evolved in order to help animals navigate complex social scenarios — and interestingly, this has a snowball effect of further complicating the society of the big-brained creatures.

For more on animal psychology, check out Gregory Berns' "What It's Like to be a Dog", in which the doctor convinced a variety of animals to reveal their neurological secrets. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 26, 2017