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What Separates Man from the Animals – Studying Dolphins

Sherri Seligson|November 14, 2017

A homeschool student once asked me,  “What is the difference in God’s eyes between a person and animals?”

This is a very good question. Many animals are remarkably intelligent. Some can see further than humans, while others can see things beyond the color spectrum of visible light. Animals often run faster than we can. Many hear better, fight better, and are stronger and able to endure environmental conditions that would render most humans helpless. So what sets people apart from animals in a special way?

I don’t claim to be a theologian, so I decided to approach this question from a scientific angle. And I began talking about dolphins.

Most of us love dolphins. They have that constant smile and seem to spend entire days playing and frolicking in the ocean, never being a menace to anyone (unless you’re a smelt). They’re also quite intelligent: They’ve demonstrated an ability to solve puzzles, seem to have a social structure within their pods, and communicate using echolocation.

So what makes dolphins different from humans in God’s eyes? Their intelligence and communicative abilities may even rival that of some people, so intelligence cannot be the primary determining factor.

Having worked with these creatures for years as a marine biologist, I would propose that one of the most observable differences is that dolphins do not have morals. We know that dolphins feel emotions—they can be happy, sad, and even angry. I have known dolphins to pout, stubbornly facing the corner of their tank because they popped a beach ball and I didn’t have a replacement. Honestly, working with dolphins was in some ways good preparation for being a parent!

However, dolphins do not have an understanding of what is right and wrong or, for that matter, what is true. Yet people have an innate need to seek the truth. Whatever their political leanings, people look for some framework that defines how they should behave. We are always discussing what is right and wrong—what should be done and what shouldn’t. What is the right way to treat our household pets? What is the right way to care for our children? What is the right way to care for the environment? What is the right way to behave towards others? We are always looking to define what is right and proper.

I’ve heard Christians say that everyone is created with a God-shaped hole in their heart, and that they are seeking to fill that void in their lives by looking for what is true. Even among non-Christians, all people have this concept that there is at least some kind of right and wrong in the world (Romans 2:14–15).

Yet dolphins (especially males) have been known to attack a young calf within their own groups. Dolphins have been observed tormenting other animals for play, not considering that these actions may be wrong. They don’t question the results of their behavior. Yes, there have been some cases of dolphins protecting swimmers from sharks. That’s a natural instinct they have to protect the younger and weaker individuals living in their pods. They are mentally “wired” to protect their own and sometimes will extend that protective behavior to humans. But I don’t believe it is altruistic.


Dolphins develop deep bonds within their pods. They care for and protect one another. They have also been known to care for and protect human trainers with whom they work in marine aquariums. This bonding instinct and protective behavior helps their pods to survive in the wild. But on the flip side, dolphins have been observed killing fish just so they can throw them around for play. Young males often will gang up on other animals and bat them around.

When I worked in an aquarium, we had dolphins living in the same large tank as sharks. The dolphins had their own area in a separate, connected tank where they could sleep and play, away from all the fish, and they also were allowed into the tank from time to time to have more swimming space in a more natural environment. Sometimes the dolphins would gang up on a shark, corralling it to the bottom of the tank for fun. You see, sharks don’t have swim bladders like other fish, so they have a harder time controlling their buoyancy, or staying at one place in the water column. The dolphins loved watching the sharks slowly float back up in the water column after they pushed them down.

Now that sounds like innocent play, but it kind of scared the sharks (who are often not as vicious as the TV shows depict) and sometimes left them with severe bruises that were hazardous to their health. The dolphins didn’t worry that they may be harming the sharks.

Yet don’t blame the dolphins. They don’t have the ability to know that a behavior can be “wrong.” They have no moral compass. The same is true of all the other “intelligent” animals of our planet.

Humans have an innate understanding that there is a right and a wrong in the world, and it comes from the fact that we are made in the image of our Creator (Genesis 1:27). Like God, humans have the ability and desire to create, we can think and know things with our minds, we feel emotions, we make choices, we know the difference between right and wrong, and each of us has a spirit, created by God, that will live on for all eternity. We are made a little lower than the angels, and God has crowned us with glory and honor (Psalm 8:5). These qualities separate us from the animal kingdom and set us above all other creatures on earth.

Don’t get me wrong. I still love dolphins! But when we impute human characteristics to them, we begin to forget that God created people in His image to live in a relationship with God and give Him glory.

If you enjoyed this article by Sherri Seligson, read her other posts – How To Write A Lab Report and Does My Child Child Have to Choose a Career Path NOW?

Woman's headshotBefore Sherri Seligson was “promoted” to the position of homeschooling mother of four, she worked as a marine biologist at Walt Disney World’s Living Seas pavilion and published shark behavior research. She is the author of Apologia’s Exploring Creation with Marine Biology and Internship for High School CreditSherri is also the featured instructor on the following high school science instructional DVDs from ApologiaExploring Creation with Biology Instructional DVDExploring Creation with Chemistry Instructional DVDExploring Creation with Advanced Biology: The Human Bodyand has written companion curricula for feature films such as Dolphin Tale and War Horse. Sherri and her husband, David, live in Orlando, Florida. Sherri blogs at Just Extraordinary.