Are Whales smarter than Humans? Their brain size leads me to think so.

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    $\begingroup$ possible duplication of skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/2948/… $\endgroup$ – Behzad Rowshanravan Mar 18 '15 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ related: Is life expectancy linked to intelligence in animals? $\endgroup$ – fileunderwater Mar 19 '15 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ I think this is impossible to answer without clearly defining what "smart" means, in some way that is valid across species. I would bet that whales do poorly on standardized IQ tests for example ;) $\endgroup$ – Roland Jun 17 '17 at 10:12
  • $\begingroup$ I'll say this: If one were presented with both brains and asked which one belonged to a god-like being, seems like 9 out of 10 people would say the one on the left. I find arguments like, "What do we mean by intelligence?" boring. We know: Memory, reasoning ability, etc. If some animals begin to approach human intelligence, why must whales and every other candidate intelligence necessarily squeeze between apes and men? $\endgroup$ – Jeff Oct 4 '17 at 16:37

The "wiring" of the brain is more important than the actual size. If only size would matter that basically humans would be rather unintelligent beings ( many many animals have larger head and brain than us). Intelligence is more related to the complexity of the brain (number and size of different brain components) and the number of connections between neurons. We humans are intelligent because we have high complexity compared to our brain size, our brain has more grooves therefore higher surface than a whale brain. So even though whales are quite smart they're not as smart as us.

EDIT: After getting a few comments I felt I need to clarify my answer, so here it comes: as pointed out by user137 humans have much higher brain-to-body size ration than whales and this is very important. What I was trying to explain (yet failed for the first time it seems), that mere physical size / volume is not that important. The level of development and complexity is that matters the most. Many parts of the human brain is found in lower order animals as shown in the image below: brain areas (taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain

The surface to volume ratio matters because the higher ratio implies a more complex brain structure. So while whales have a higher surface in absolute value (approx 2-3 times) yet their brain is larger by approx 5-6 times ( lots of comparison data here), thus we have higher surface/volume ratio (i left the ratio part out on my original answer). In the accepted answer on the question linked by Bez it is said that more grey matter in frontal lobe correlates with IQ. Now since grey matter is made of neuron bodies and (fewer)axons, this is quite straightfoward --> more neurons = more connections = higher complexity. But all that comparison was made between humans. So brain size differences between different individuals of the same species may contribute to individual qualities. Comparing mere physical brain sizes of different species is not straightforward because of different brain development levels and brain structure.

  • $\begingroup$ I might also be useful to check the wiki pages about brain and brain size en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain_size $\endgroup$ – Nandor Poka Mar 18 '15 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ It's useful to think about brain size relative to body size. Whales and elephants have much larger brains than humans, but have even larger bodies to go with them. The large bodies probably cost more "brainpower" because of the extra sensory input and simply having more body to control. $\endgroup$ – user137 Mar 18 '15 at 18:50
  • $\begingroup$ I think being able for fine movement requires far more brain power. Basically all land mammals have the basic senses more or less, so just being big does not imply more sensory input. By this logic tall people would be smarter because bigger body--> more sensory input --> more brainpower. $\endgroup$ – Nandor Poka Mar 18 '15 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ This section on brain and body size is probably a little clearer than my previous comment. Sperm whales have large brains, about 8kg, but have bodies of about 57,000kg. Humans have brains of about 1.5kg and bodies about 70kg. The brain to body ratio for humans is much larger than it is for whales or elephants. While this does not directly correlate into intelligence, it is at least a useful measurement across species. Trying to apply it within a species ( tall vs short humans ) is not appropriate. $\endgroup$ – user137 Mar 18 '15 at 19:44
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    $\begingroup$ plus the answers in the linked question by @Bez do not support your claims $\endgroup$ – AliceD Mar 18 '15 at 22:59

There's really no answer to your question, unless you can define "smart."

The brains of humans and cetaceans are very different, as are their environments.

Our hands give us the ability to manipulate objects, a trait believed to have made enormous contributions to human intelligence. Octopuses - perhaps the most intelligent invertebrates - can similarly manipulate objects. Cetaceans, of course don't have this ability.

On the other hand, at least some cetaceans are known for their remarkable vocalizations, reminiscent of human language. They lack the ability to write or store their knowledge or "language" in books or computer hard drives. But how much can they store in their memory?

Most people would probably agree that Homo sapiens is the most intelligent organism in our solar system. Still, we really don't know how intelligent cetaceans are. It's possible that they are smarter than humans in certain areas.

Incidentally, I worked with underwater sonar in the Navy and later worked on a research project studying the underwater vocalizations of bowhead whales in the Arctic Ocean. It's truly an alien environment. We can hear the loudest land animals - lions and howler monkeys - perhaps a mile away, but whales can communicate for much longer distances due to the physics of underwater sound. Our sonars could hear submarines many miles away.

Whales are probably capable of some remarkable feats that have yet to be discovered, some of which may translate into what we would define as genius.

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    $\begingroup$ Please could you add some supporting scientific material that reinforces your answer and allows further reading. $\endgroup$ – rg255 Mar 8 '16 at 7:36

In any comparison of intelligence, the most important question is how are we going to define intelligence? The typical inclination is: intelligence is what is required to do the things that we admire as difficult intellectual feats. More generally, intelligence is what it takes to do things that humans do. Making comparisons between species is inherently difficult & limited by our species centered narcissism.

An orca has a brain 5-7 times larger than a human brain. The majority of that brain mass is in the frontal lobes- the part of the brain associated with higher cognitive processes (relatively little is involved with motor processes).

Brains require a lot of energy. Nature doesn't like waste. Whales would not have evolved such huge brains unless they were beneficial (& being used)

Consider the image associated with this link:

How your brain sees your body: Meet the cortical homunculus


Much of our brain is devoted to hands.

Whales don't need to use their immense brain power on hands (that they don't possess). Therefore they're using it for something else. I wouldn't be surprised if that something else is more complicated ( perhaps more intelligent) than we can imagine.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Biology.SE! While you have an interesting perspective, your answer lacks supporting references for most of the claims you make. Without those references this is indistinguishable from opinion and is unlikely to be well received. ——— Please take the tour and then consult the help pages for additional advice on How to Answer effectively on this site and then edit your answer accordingly. Thanks! 😊 $\endgroup$ – tyersome Dec 8 '19 at 18:21

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