Dolphin Capital Theory

by on January 10, 2018 at 7:27 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

The Guardian…Kelly the dolphin has built up quite a reputation. All the dolphins at the institute are trained to hold onto any litter that falls into their pools until they see a trainer, when they can trade the litter for fish. In this way, the dolphins help to keep their pools clean.

Kelly has taken this task one step further. When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer. After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on.

…Her cunning has not stopped there. One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins.

The dolphins are not only gaming the system they are saving and using a capital structure to increase total output.

The more we learn, the smaller appears the gap between humans and other animals. Over twenty years ago, I read When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals. I was convinced. But at that time it was a controversial book. Today, with thousands of youtube videos of animals clearly having fun or exhibiting other emotions, it seems obvious.

Animal consciousness is still controversial but the gap between other minds and other non-human minds appears to me to be very small. If I can believe in the first, I can easily believe in the second. As the Cambridge Declaration put it:

Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

1 rayward January 10, 2018 at 7:39 am

Now we know why advertising, especially digital advertising, works so well. Fish in the sea.

2 OneGuy January 10, 2018 at 11:27 am

Who knew! Democrat Dolphins.

3 Jeff R January 10, 2018 at 7:42 am

On the flipside of the coin, a deer died after it ran headlong into the side of my moving car a few years ago. I could not be said to have in any sense hit the deer; quit the opposite, actually.

Dolphins are the exception rather than the rule. Most animals are really pretty dumb.

4 Slocum January 10, 2018 at 8:14 am

The list of exceptions is really not that short. Various kinds of apes, monkeys, and dogs. Pigs. Crows and parrots. Hyenas. Honey Badgers. Even rats:

5 Mark Thorson January 10, 2018 at 11:43 am

A problem with that research is rats do not like chocolate. I regularly bait rat traps with peanut butter cups, and when they manage to remove the bait without setting off the trap I sometimes find the chocolate shell with the peanut butter eaten out. Because of this, I now cut away the chocolate shell and only use the center. I probably killed about 20 rats in 2017, so I consider myself an expert.

6 Ryan January 10, 2018 at 11:47 am

Stop wasting my favorite snack (and your money) and just buy a jar of cheap peanut butter.

7 Lanigram January 10, 2018 at 12:48 pm

My thoughts ecactly…though I am troubled by the fate of the rats.

8 Rube Goldberg January 10, 2018 at 12:01 pm

Sounds too simple.

9 Slocum January 10, 2018 at 12:41 pm

Uh, OK, but rats *did* eat the chocolate (sometimes before letting out the other rat but usually afterward). To me the important aspects were that the previously wet rats let their companions out more quickly AND when the other rat was dry, they didn’t bother opening the door (that is, they weren’t primarily motivated just by companionship or to explore the other compartment).

10 Careless January 10, 2018 at 1:49 pm

Mark Thorson’s name being taken over by rayward or something?

11 Jeff R January 10, 2018 at 12:41 pm

Yeah, but there are a lot of different kinds of animals, so we can both be right here: most animals are indeed pretty stupid, but it is also true that there a significant number of exceptions (how important we should consider these exceptions is still up for debate).

12 Apso January 10, 2018 at 2:21 pm

Don’t forget the cephalopods. They are freaky smart.

13 maury January 10, 2018 at 9:50 am

…alleged evidence of the “Dolphin Capital Theory” here … required human participation.

… that “humans are not unique in…consciousness” requires some objective definition of consciousness — which humans have not yet been able to determine.

14 edgar January 10, 2018 at 10:18 am

operant conditioning?

15 AnthonyB January 10, 2018 at 10:58 am

Yes, as with capitalism among humans.

16 Slocum January 10, 2018 at 12:42 pm

So you don’t accept the ability to pass the ‘mirror test’ as an indication of self-awareness?

17 Careless January 10, 2018 at 1:45 pm

I had a woman once run into the side of my car while driving. If she’d been maybe a 10th of a second earlier she would have been run over.

18 sort_of_knowledgable January 10, 2018 at 3:45 pm

A member of a species acting irrationally doesn’t indicate the species is unintelligent. The deer could have made a mistake in some deer fraternity hazing ritual.

19 Gene January 10, 2018 at 10:38 pm

No, deer are stupid by nature. Beyond stupid–they’re suicidal. Seen the same deer behavior across the country over many decades. They’re the village idiots of the animal world. Rats are embarrassed for them.

20 Steve Fritzinger January 10, 2018 at 7:51 am

My sister in law got the same results when she taught her dog Ace to pick up after her toddler. He’s find a piece of trash and tear it into the smallest pieces he could manage before bringing then you her one by one.

Ace was a Catahoula Leopard and one of the smartest dogs I’ve known.

21 Concerned Citizen January 10, 2018 at 8:01 am

Even dolphins had been corrupted by Bush and his Madoff economy. Imagine the scams dolphins are running now that Gordon Gekko is president. Sad.

There was a time America had leaders, not we have deal-making scammers. What have we done tou ourselves?

22 nigel January 10, 2018 at 8:50 am

Well played!

23 Slugger January 10, 2018 at 9:43 am

Leo Szilard is not surprised.

24 dearieme January 10, 2018 at 10:00 am

It’s an interesting yarn. Well done, Mr Tabarrok.

Towards the bottom of the post I found “Convergent evidence indicates …” and could read no further. Faced with English as turgid as that, I am tempted to accept that the intellectual gap between some humans and some dolphins is fairly narrow.

25 Pshrnk January 10, 2018 at 10:52 am

“I am tempted to accept that the intellectual gap between some humans and some dolphins is fairly narrow.”
Are the humans catching up?

26 dearieme January 10, 2018 at 3:05 pm


27 Attila Smith January 10, 2018 at 4:48 pm

Yeah, +1 from me too. Are people with only consonants in their name more intelligent than the other humans?

28 Pshrnk January 10, 2018 at 6:15 pm

3 Standard Deviations above the mean.

29 Bernard Guerrero January 10, 2018 at 6:31 pm

Who told you he’s a “people”? Might just be the best he could manage with his flippers when he started browsing the net.

30 Lanigram January 10, 2018 at 11:21 am

Haha! Good one dearie! Due to selection pressure for fast communication and a lack of ivory towers underwater, dolphins lost the show-off genes – academic speech – long ago.

31 curmudgeonly troll January 10, 2018 at 10:02 am

I guess Adam Smith was wrong

“Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that….But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of.”

32 Charbes A. January 10, 2018 at 11:08 am

Dogs won’t have much of a civilization until they create stock exchanges.

33 Slocum January 10, 2018 at 12:47 pm

Adam Smith didn’t have Youtube and couldn’t watch monkeys exchanging rocks for food (and getting quite irate when they don’t believe they’re getting a fair deal):

34 Brian Donohue January 10, 2018 at 10:15 am

That dolphin thing is fascinating, but this statement:

“Animal consciousness is still controversial but the gap between other minds and other non-human minds appears to me to be very small.”

is so squishy as to mean whatever you could want it to. In some ways, the difference between humans and bacteria are very small.

In some ways, the difference between human minds and dolphin minds are quite large.

35 Steve January 10, 2018 at 10:25 am

Show me the dolphin version of MR!

36 Mark Thorson January 10, 2018 at 11:31 am

Show me the dolphin version of Bitcoin!

37 Bannon 2020 January 10, 2018 at 1:40 pm

Show me the dolphin version of Trump!

38 Thor January 10, 2018 at 7:09 pm

The Trump version of a dolphin is a shark. A hammerhead shark. (And I disliked Hillary.)

39 Careless January 10, 2018 at 2:55 pm

In some ways, the difference between human minds and dolphin minds are quite large.

In some ways, the difference between human minds and other human minds is quite large.

40 Margaret Degnan January 10, 2018 at 10:23 am

Too intelligent to be kept in captivity for our own greed.

41 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 10, 2018 at 10:57 am

In my lifetime we have certainly moved from humans as the only sapiens to a more shaded view. From my reading, intelligences are more varied than expected, and more common.

Animals can feel, and figure things out, without inventing the internet or whatever weird goalposts were set above.

Who seeks to stand against those findings? A certain sort of religious person who is looking for a unique human creation? The omnivores?

Personally I square meat eating with “it may not be nice, but it is natural.”

42 Charbes A. January 10, 2018 at 11:15 am

In my time, men were men and animal were animals. Animals knew their place and liked it and they’d beter like it.

43 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 10, 2018 at 11:25 am


Though when “animals were animals” perhaps they only “stared with incomprehension?”

(A neighbor leaves their parrot outside in a cage some days. When I walk by it gives me a wolf whistle, which I return. Poor, lonely, social creature.)

44 Bob from Ohio January 10, 2018 at 11:45 am


You have no idea that he feels this human emotion.

He might choose nearly unlimited, easy food and no predators to exciting jungle living.

Its just anthropomorphism on your behalf.

45 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 10, 2018 at 12:05 pm

You need to read more on parrot sociology.

46 Bob from Ohio January 10, 2018 at 1:26 pm

“parrot sociology”

OMG This apparently exists. We are way too rich.

47 msgkings January 10, 2018 at 1:41 pm

If you are too rich maybe you and I can make a deal to help you out.

48 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 10, 2018 at 3:07 pm

The basic idea is just that ..

Without doubt, a parrot is extremely social, using a variety of calls in the wild to talk to other like birds. For this reason, an owner needs to talk to the bird throughout the day, something reciprocated with a whistle, chirp, and in some instances, a verbal response.

Maybe you thought of parrots as solitary beasts, but like humans, that is never found in nature. Social species have a built-in interdependence and survival strategy.

Libertarians not exempted.

49 Bob from Ohio January 10, 2018 at 3:33 pm

“If you are too rich maybe you and I can make a deal to help you out.”

We = plural. In this case the United States [and/or the “West” or the “First World”].

A society that is so wealthy it can afford to have [presumably] intelligent people do “parrot sociology” research.

50 Charbes A. January 10, 2018 at 3:57 pm

Actually, my parrot research is nearing a breakthrough. I am trying to understand why Polly wants a cracker ad if she wants butter to go wih it.

51 Brian Donohue January 10, 2018 at 4:48 pm

Fun fact: Falcons are parrots, not raptors. They’re also mostly solitary.

52 Careless January 10, 2018 at 5:22 pm

Falcons are parrots, not raptors.

A) they’re not parrots, any more than primates are rodents.
B) they are raptors, which is not a taxonomic group, but a description of a bird that hunts in a certain manner

53 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 10, 2018 at 5:27 pm

I saw that falcon thing, dna sequencing is yielding all sorts of interesting things.

Probably safe to say falcons are no longer parrots, and behaviorally distinct. In fact, described that way:

“Falcons: Awesome predators. Superlative fliers. Plumage exclusively in earth tones. Relatively solitary. Found from the tropics to the Arctic. Strong hooked bill used to tear apart prey.”

“Parrots: Plumage in bright, saturated colors. Social. Smart. Most species found in the tropics. Strong hooked bill used to tear apart fruits and nuts.”

54 Brian Donohue January 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm


So… dolphins are fish?

55 Brian Donohue January 10, 2018 at 6:01 pm

@ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ, falcons are libertarian parrots that got tired of all the damn yapping.

56 Thor January 10, 2018 at 8:53 pm

In “wolf whistling”, the parrot, is not expressing an opinion on your aesthetic appeal. You probably have none (to the parrot).

It is “parroting”. That is, it is engaging in a learned behaviour that has, not incidentally, no connection to wolves. Calling it a wolf whistle only betrays the deep cultural antipathy of some cultural traditions to Lupus.

57 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 11, 2018 at 10:33 am

We actually do a few whistles, switching them up.

And “wolf whistle” is amusing to me because it brings back the Saturday morning cartoons of my youth. Pretty sure the wolves wore zoot suits.

58 Brian Donohue January 10, 2018 at 11:54 am

Does that work for racism too?

Of course not. Why? Because you apply different principles to other human beings than to the animals you eat. Me too.

59 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 10, 2018 at 12:04 pm

That was a strange attempt, at I don’t know even what, Brian.

Racism is the wrong word if you are looking at deep history of humans and other animals. Tribalism is better, and more easily links to behaviors in chimps and further relatives.

(Racism is not even one thing, and where it is practiced it has a tribal definition unique to the “user.” It is one set of inputs to the tribalism equation.)

Educated people, looking to help the “arc of the moral universe bend toward justice,” recognize that.

The game has long been to make the in-group as big as possible, and of course to knock down artificial divisions.

60 Brian Donohue January 10, 2018 at 2:03 pm

OK Mr. Arc of The Moral Universe, I’ll dumb it down for you.

“It may not be nice, but it is natural” is a horrible moral rule..

61 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 10, 2018 at 2:57 pm

You’ve dumbed down twice now.

What do you want, Brian? Are you going to each the dolphin to eat tofu? Fish are people too?

Are we going to find some rocket science at the end of this?

62 Careless January 10, 2018 at 2:59 pm

Personally I square meat eating with “it may not be nice, but it is natural.”

I square it with knowing that cows and fowl are really, really stupid. Now, it’s possible I could learn something about the intelligence of pigs that could make me stop eating pork

63 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 10, 2018 at 3:08 pm

Turkey is best, because they are both stupid and mean.

64 Judah Benjamin Hur January 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm

I eat meat, but I’m not going to rationalize it by pretending that cows or even fowl are stupid. I just accept that I have plenty of room for moral improvement. Go cows!

65 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 10, 2018 at 7:36 pm

That was a joke. The non-joke is to step back and .. thread endorsed:

It is the global food system that matters.

66 Pensans January 10, 2018 at 11:27 am

The shared characteristics of humans and animals are not a new discovery. Justinian’s code defined natural law as the principles of life shared by man and animal. The difference traditionally has not been in awareness or emotions or maximizing outputs but in terms of knowledge of good and evil, reason in the ancient sense of spirit or nous.

67 Brian Donohue January 10, 2018 at 11:58 am

I think there’s a book about this.

68 Philip January 10, 2018 at 11:38 am

So when are you turning vegetarian?

69 Gene January 10, 2018 at 11:53 am

I genuinely would be interested to hear Alex’s views on the ethics of his diet.

I’ve heard Tyler’s but it’s not very impressive, I think it’s related to the idea that it is difficult to reason someone a position that they never reasoned them self into in the first place.

70 JWatts January 10, 2018 at 12:09 pm

“So when are you turning vegetarian?”

Pshh … I’m adding Dolphin to my diet. It’s a Mammal eat Mammal world….

71 Ray Lopez January 10, 2018 at 12:18 pm

They used to and probably still do eat dolphin in the Philippines. Not the fish, the mammal. They also eat the fish dolphin. Apropos of nothing, the PH is overfished (groupers and crabs and pretty much every fish is caught while in the juvenile stage, it’s sad).

72 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 10, 2018 at 12:24 pm

While a certain sort of vegetarian has long sought to add “animals” to the “thou shalt not kill” in-group, it remains an outlier position.

In western civilization, “don’t eat smart animals” is pretty well accepted as a milder, if inconsistent, rule.

Poor pigs.

73 msgkings January 10, 2018 at 1:44 pm

I’m not a vegetarian because I love animals. I’m a vegetarian because I HATE PLANTS!

74 Thor January 10, 2018 at 7:13 pm


75 Lanigram January 10, 2018 at 12:00 pm

The source of emotions is believed to be the insular cortex shared by all all mammals, but emotions may be initiated in more widely shared subcortical structures.

In other words, there exists evidence from neuroscience that humans share the same emotional hardware with many animals.

76 Aloha Jane January 10, 2018 at 1:36 pm

Read the Elephant book at the time too, and was shocked when Time had a cover story a few years later (in 99) asking “Can Animals Thinks?” I have never understood how someone could purport to believe in evolution, yet have doubts about whether animals think, are conscious in many ways similar to us, etc., given shared heredity and components. Even more idiotic given the evidence from interaction with animals, which confirms they basically operate at the level of infants or kids.

77 msgkings January 10, 2018 at 1:46 pm

I think most people know in their gut that higher mammals probably have emotions, but meat tastes good and it’s embedded deep in our culture. So they engage in some cognitive dissonance to avoid the guilt. I know I do.

78 Anonymous January 10, 2018 at 1:59 pm

Even if they have emotions, that doesn’t seem to affect whether you should eat meat. Presumably they don’t feel any emotion about being suddenly dead after having been alive for a while. And it doesn’t seem they can comprehend their fate and so live in fear of their harvest.

79 msgkings January 10, 2018 at 2:02 pm

True, they don’t have a sense of the future and their own demise, but it just feels wrong to eat furry, sentient things capable of feeling happiness, fear, sadness, and pain. Not that it stops me.

80 Thor January 10, 2018 at 8:47 pm

First step, remove their sentience, a.k.a. kill them. Check.

Second step, remove their fur (it tastes bad). Check.

Third step, prepare and eat. Check.

81 Thor January 10, 2018 at 7:15 pm

The question is also, isn’t meat eating deeply embedded in our biology too?

(Just as it is fallacious to speak of biology without acknowledging that biology contains culture too, isn’t it also fallacious to speak of culture without acknowledging biology? I am really asking.)

82 john January 10, 2018 at 2:36 pm

I’ve been certain for years that one of the main reasons human under rate other animals is that we have not ability to understand their language — both by assuming they have none and never really looking because of the certainty we’re at the top. It may well be a case of not needing to but it seem many other animal seem to understand human language at a much higher level than humans can of the other animals. Does make one wonder if that is due to intelligence or simply more limited senses.

83 Aloha Jane January 10, 2018 at 8:38 pm

Incentives! My dog has very good reason to understand me (as much as he can), I have far less incentive to understand other animals. Though if you bother paying attention, it’s amazing how good (e.g.) dogs are at communicating very clearly what they want, don’t want, feel, etc. Deep, deep failing by most philosophers to have touched on the issue, who either didn’t have much interaction with animals or (more likely) were completely out of touch with the real world (instead putting together rarified abstractions that didn’t make much sense even on that artificial level).

84 cc January 11, 2018 at 5:12 pm

I think the converse is true. We can read animals very well, which is why we have been able to domesticate hundreds of species (even bees). They do not have “language” for us to understand but they do have behaviors which we can read quite well.

85 January 10, 2018 at 8:48 pm

The bowerbird capital theory is more interesting.

he lures the female with a bachelor pad, a ring, a car, and money.

86 NI January 11, 2018 at 1:20 am

People that eat animals hate this stuff. The guilt is real.

87 Careless January 11, 2018 at 11:33 am


88 danexmachina January 11, 2018 at 10:21 am

It’s not that animals are so smart that we should think about, but that humans aren’t. Intentionality in people isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (“People do stuff. They have reasons for doing stuff: in that order.” – Malakar). Animals simply don’t delude themselves with post hoc reasons why they got lucky.
Our supposed intelligence superiority really exists in external systems that we usually fail to maintain. Language, civilization, roads, peace, community. The defining attribute of most of modern humanity is Competitive Fanaticism, supported by Competitive Irrationality and Competitive A**holery. Throw in winner-take-all ownership of compliant politicians and you start to see why a dophin (or a random number generator) should be our next Great Leader.

89 danexmachina January 11, 2018 at 10:25 am

Oh, and the reciprocal:
Fanatic Competicism…

90 cc January 11, 2018 at 5:09 pm

Dogs can clearly sulk, look guilty, and have fun.

91 eeeeks January 16, 2018 at 11:21 am

Erwin Schrödinger makes this very argument in his “My View of the World”. That we are essentially different aspects of a single consciousness, and i believe this is also extends animals as well as plants according to Vedanta

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