What to make of the intelligence of Dolphins and other intelligent animals


So what are we as Catholics to make of the claim that certain animals, particularly dolphins and orcas, have an intelligence similar to ours?

According to a PETA article:


*An Emory University scientist determined that the relative brain size of many dolphin and whale species is second only to that of modern humans and that the complexity of the neocortex of many dolphins and whales, including orcas, is comparable to and perhaps exceeds that of the modern human brain.

Other studies have revealed that dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self, and the ability to consider the future. Research has also shown that behavior adaptation is passed from one dolphin to another.*

Does this throw a monkey wrench into the teaching that only man has a rational soul?


No. Only man has an immortal soul and only man can perceive and experience God. The rest is all a matter of degree.


Intelligence similar to ours? Look out for those dolphins building cars, spacecraft, or medicine…

I guess they did find a way to make tuna taste better, so there is that…


I love animals, but PETA is a bunch of radical lamebrains. I wouldn’t trust anything they say or publish.



They have an agenda to redefine animals as our equals.

While that is true **at the level of the biological body, **only in human life, is there the rational mind/soul.

God never told Jonah to preach to the whale that picked him up at sea.



Humans have an immortal soul, irrespective of the intelligence level of that specific human.

Little preborn babies have immortal souls, they might not have “intelligence” yet.

An orca could probably figure out a task sooner than a two month old baby, but so what? Humans are made in the image and likeness of God. Not orcas, dolphins etc.

That said, I do like marine mammals, it is interesting to see how they can figure things out. I saw a video once of an orca whale killing a great white shark. The shark uses just intstinct and force to attack. The orca used its intelligence. It rammed full force into the great white, flipping it around and holding it on its back until the shark drowned. (sharks cannot be on their backs, their gills won’t work).

I saw another video of a woman who was snorkling and came across an orca. The orca wasn’t acting aggressive, so the woman tought it was a good idea to go at pet the orca. The orca took her by the ankle and started to descend. The woman was petrified, because she knew she could not hold her breath long enough. The orca must have realized it, and brought her back up to the surface.


Well, there’s certainly debate on just defining and quantifying exactly what is intelligence in human beings.

The thing that has struck me as different about human beings is our desire to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake. To understand. Not just use the environment about us, but understand what is going on in it. I don’t see any other animal with the same drive to acquire knowledge and understanding.


I would not really suggest PETA as a source of readings.

“Animal intelligence” is simply “animal intelligence” to various degrees. Not human intellect nor angelic…

I do not mistake my dog or my cat for my kids -though they both like “treats” :slight_smile:


I looked up intelligence in St. Thomas Aquinas. He seems to give two descriptions of intelligence, one of which is easier to understand than the other.

His easier to understand description of intelligence says: [A]nimals [that] move themselves in respect to an end they themselves propose are superior to [beasts]. This can only be done by reason and intellect; whose province it is to know the proportion between the end and the means to that end, and duly coordinate them. source If I understand that passage correctly, St. Thomas thought we could identify intelligence insofar as an animal could propose a goal to itself, see what needs to be done to accomplish that goal, and then do those things. He mentions that bees and ants are “more intelligent” than other animals on this page, and perhaps this is because they show characteristics similar to these.

Therefore, if dolphins can choose a goal, figure out the means to accomplish it, and then follow that plan, it would seem to follow, at least by St. Thomas’ description, that they have some intelligence, but perhaps only in the way that bees and ants are “more intelligent” than other animals, which St. Thomas seems to have admitted was possible.

St. Thomas also has a more difficult to understand definition of intelligence. He says: [Intelligent] beings are distinguished from non-intelligent beings in that the latter possess only their own form; whereas the intelligent being is naturally adapted to have also the form of some other thing; for the idea of the thing known is in the knower. Hence it is manifest that the nature of a non-intelligent being is more contracted and limited; whereas the nature of intelligent beings has a greater amplitude and extension; therefore the Philosopher says (De Anima iii) that “the soul is in a sense all things.” source I had a hard time understanding this at first sight. I googled some resources and found two pages that try to put it in other words: here and here.

Based on those two resources, it appears that, at least according to St. Thomas, to understand a thing intelligently involves re-creating its characteristics in your mind. That’s what I think he means by “form” – a thing’s characteristics. When he says an intelligent being is adapted to have other forms, I think he means a mind can recreate the characteristics of physical objects in itself. So, for example, if a dolphin could look at several kinds of triangles, and deduce that a triangle is any three-sided figure, that would seem to mean that dolphins have intelligent minds.

I hope that helps.


Not at all. Animals can be intelligent and in fact there are many intelligent animals but and this is a big BUT animals do not have free will neither the ability to make decisions. Because of that they cannot be “rational” because no matter how intelligent they can’t make any decision. No matter how intelligent a dolphin is they are completely incapable to decide that they want to stop living in the ocean invent a device that can let them walk and land and go and line on land. Humans on the other han can. And humans can because they have a different nature than animals. So the fact that dolphins are intellings has nothing to do with the fact that they nature is different to ours.


Sounds to me more like it wanted to eat her but then changed its “mind.”

While we should always respect wild creatures, it is an error to try to humanise them or their level of intelligence.



I’m not sure. Orcas in the wild normally do not attack humans.


There are no such claims from any reputable source.

The Church has no policy on such things.


Yeah, but that might have been because the whale was too “intelligent” and conscientious to engage in the kinds of behaviours that the humans at Ninevah had become engrossed in.


And then there is also “creative” intelligence where not simply re-creating the intelligible form but coming up with novel forms based upon combining or refining known forms. This would appear to be what dolphins and whales lack since they do not continually express their intelligence in creative ways.

On the other hand, perhaps they are too intelligent and simply spend their entire existence contemplating God – which, I think, Thomas says is the highest good in any case. Perhaps they are “angelic” creatures in that sense. I wouldn’t want to presume otherwise.

Sometimes I get the impression from my cats that they know far more than they are letting on.


Dolphins and whales are not humans, but they have an internal world. Insects (tiny ones like gnats and mosquitoes) do not have an internal world and are not conscious. Tiny tiny animals are like little robots.

Mice have an internal world, cats have an internal world, dogs have an internal world, African parrots have an internal world, and so on and so forth, but not protezoa, water bears, euglenae, gnats, flies, etc. Ants and bees are especially complex little robots, but they are not conscious either.

Having never been a protist or a volvox or an ant or a bee, (or a cat for that matter) how do I know this? It’s just my guess from the way they behave.

I don’t know where the consciousness cutoff is. I’d guess somewhere below mice, with warm blooded high metabolism little creatures like hummingbirds or mice having an edge over snakes and lizards in the consciousness department.



The problem, it would seem, is that God, as Creator, has ordained it immoral to kill other human beings without just cause, but has never made that stipulation with regard to animals.

Ergo, it would seem there is a morally relevant difference between what a human being is and what an animal is – otherwise God would have expanded the prohibition against killing to include all those creatures up to that cutoff point. Assuming, of course, that consciousness is the salient feature that defines a moral agent as one deserving moral protection.

On the other hand, it might be argued that dying isn’t necessarily the evil it is made out to be, but that the determinable wrong is in an evil will bringing about the death or demise of another being for no good reason.


“He said to them, ‘Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.’” Mark 16:15.
Though PETA takes its principals to the level of “animal rights,” Christians are similarly called to vigorously oppose animal cruelty. The Catholic Encyclopedia states “But it is indisputable that, when properly understood and fairly judged, Catholic doctrine – though it does not concede rights to the brute creation – denounces cruelty to animals as vigorously and as logically as do those moralists who make our duty in this respect the correlative of a right in the animals.”

For anyone seeking a thoughtful and deeply Christian, but provocative, perspective on humanity’s duties with respect to animals, I highly recommend Dominion, by Matthew Scully.


Not at all. The Church teaches that man was given dominion over all the animals. I think beavers building dams is a really complex thing for an animal to do, but regardless of brain size, dolphins, for example, cannot do things that go beyond their instincts.

Finally, the soul is spirit. It is created for each of us by God.



One slight point: Dolphins do not have hands to built carl or spacecraft (or ‘dry land’ to put them). :wink:

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