12/15/2013 06:39 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2014

The Dirty Little Secret About Human Intelligence

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

We are rightly fascinated with dolphins. They have the good fortune of being cute, friendly, curious and comical, graceful, powerful and highly social. Dolphins seem familiar, like a close family friend, but alien, too, living in a world we hardly understand. We are drawn to them as they are to us, bound by a common curiosity and innate urge to explore.

Dolphins therefore naturally give us an ideal opportunity to discover the possibility of communicating with non-humans in ways not trivial. We are compelled to follow this path because doing so teaches us something deeply important about ourselves: how humans fit into the pantheon of life. Clearly if other animals exhibit impressive intelligence appropriate to their environment, perhaps we are not as special as we've been taught. A good conversation with a dolphin about the latest cetacean gossip would be convincing evidence that humans are not the pinnacle of evolution, only the temporary pinnacle of one small twig on the tree of life.

We know that Homo sapiens (wise hominid) primates are late arrivals in the history of life. Through various fits, starts, and dead ends from Australopithecus to Paranthropus, through various Homo species like erectus and habilis, to modern sapiens, our lineage is short. Our most ancient direct-line ancestors only go back at most a few million years. Modern people, looking like us, have been around for only about 100,000 years. So what exactly is this experiment we call modern Homo sapiens? Does our intelligence and ability to communicate make us special? Dolphins put us to the test.

We are compelled to follow this path because doing so teaches us something deeply important about ourselves: how humans fit into the pantheon of life. -- Jeff Schweitzer

We humans have always thought of ourselves as particularly bright, proudly noting our compassion, humor, altruism and impressive capacity to generate language, mathematics, tools, art, and music. In citing this self-serving list, filtered to our benefit, we assume that humans possess, and other animals lack, these honorable traits or capabilities. We ignore the inconvenient fact that we choose to define and measure intelligence in terms of our greatest strengths. We arbitrarily exclude from the definition of intelligence higher brain functions in other animals. Enter the compelling interest in communicating with dolphins. We would be low on the list of smart animals if we included in our basic definition of intelligence the ability to use self-generated sonar to explore the environment and to communicate.

Descartes was convinced that animals completely lacked minds, and his influence is felt even today. Even Stephen Jay Gould, no species-centric chauvinist, concluded that consciousness has been "vouchsafed only to our species in the history of life on earth." With all due respect to the late Professor Gould, perhaps one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of our time, the issue is not so simple. As with almost all aspects of comparative biology, intelligence, self-consciousness and self-awareness are elements of a continuum rather than phenomena with sharp boundaries between species. Intelligence and self-awareness do not belong exclusively in the domain of humankind. Dolphins are exhibit number one. Being smart seems to be a trait unique to human beings only when we artificially designate our particular suite of characteristics as the definition of intelligence, proving that circular logic is not too intelligent.

Let's dig a little deeper. Intelligence can be thought of as the ability to learn from experience (acquire and retain new knowledge), and to subsequently apply that new knowledge with flexibility to manipulate or adapt to a changing environment. Or we can view intelligence as the ability to create abstract thought, beyond instinct or responses to sensory input. Originality and creativity are hallmarks of intelligence, and both are found in abundance in dolphins. Imagine if we could actually talk to them; here is a glimpse of the kinds of insights we might gain. At the Makapuu Oceanic Center in Hawaii, trainers working with a female rough-toothed dolphin named Malia praised or fed her fish only for behaviors that had not been previously rewarded. Within a few days, Malia began performing novel aerial flips, corkscrews, new tail flaps, new twisted breaches, and other never-before-seen behaviors. Malia learned early on that the trainers were looking for new acts, not repetitions of previously demonstrated talents. As her repertoire expanded, she needed to create ever more unique combinations of movements to get a reward, which she did with aplomb, performing stunts so unusual that trainers could not have otherwise encouraged the behavior through standard training techniques. This propensity for originality and creativity was not a fluke unique to one individual.

So yes, let us strive to communicate meaningfully with dolphins. Perhaps dolphins will teach us enough about ourselves so that we can learn to adopt a more humble understanding of our position in the biosphere. Being humble about who and what we are will be easier when we recognize our kinship with our cousins in the animal kingdom.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.