My world is as close as possible to contemporary real life under the constraint that orcas (and maybe other cetaceans) are significantly smarter than humans.

What is smarts? We define it as information processing that machines cannot in the near future do. This precludes tasks humans need their dexterity and six senses for if said task could be within the range of our AI for a robot with similar "hardware". However, it gives a reasonable metric of what kinds of skills will be most needed (and thus most plot-driving) in an increasingly automated society.

How the intelligence stays hidden (for a while): Humans are very interested in orca and in general cetacean intelligence. Human brains have over twice the neurons as elephant brains, but orcas have twice the human level. But curiosity is not enough.

Firstly, the aquatic behavior is hard to understand for landlubbers. Behavior would have subtle uses, and humans wouldn't have the "bigger picture" such as exact location of prey sonar echos, etc to understand what is going on. It's all too easy to see a cultural ritual that isn't your own and mistakenly think of it as primitive.

Secondly, in my world the language sandbags itself. Researchers manage to find some orca words that correlate to simple concepts, and from that it seems that most of the language must be similar. But it's the parts that don't get deciphered that are more complex and involved than even the Navajo language.

Thirdly, captive orcas get trained more slowly than humans because of this language barrier, not because of less intelligence, which could also mislead people into thinking that they aren't as smart.

Fourthly, humans conflate intelligence with technology. The lack of orca tech is due to the difficulties with the aqueous environment, lack of opposable thumbs (or suction cups or elephant trunks), and much smaller population sizes. Not brainpower.

Given these (human) difficulties, how would humans "discover" and utilize this super-human intelligence?

  • $\begingroup$ So long and thanks for all the fish?.. But seriously, this is a very valid question. And a scary one. Imagine being Human++ intelligence, and.... no hands. NO tools. No fire. No writing. Oral traditions at best.... I think that might be a good definition of Hell. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Jan 27, 2021 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure about the utilization part - it depends on where you want to take the story. Would humans rather unaskingly exploit the cetaceans? Or would they try to build a mutually respectful realtionship with 'Whale society'? $\endgroup$
    – Nephas
    Jan 27, 2021 at 10:44
  • $\begingroup$ Our ancestors were bullied out from the forests and left to defend themselves against the big cats etc in the grassland etc, they sacrifice memorising food sources to gain the power of imagination to be able to plan for their young's great grandchildren. Maybe orca are 3 steps ahead still plotting a world domination etc behind our back time will tell ;D $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Jan 27, 2021 at 11:19
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "Man has always assumed that he is more intelligent than dolphins because he has achieved so much--the wheel, New York, wars and so on -- while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But, conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man -- for precisely the same reasons." Douglas Adams $\endgroup$
    – Mathaddict
    Jan 27, 2021 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ well the first thing to do is give them hands, mechanical if necessary. the ability to manipulate your environment important. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 27, 2021 at 18:20

3 Answers 3


Multiple Dimensions of Intelligence

Humans are obviously superior to most animals in the kind of intelligence that concerns the manipulation of your environment with tools.

However, we have expanded beyond the concept of a one-dimensional IQ to terms like logical, interpersonal, or artistic intelligence. Maybe its just one of these facets where your cetaceans are clearly superior to humans - they could even have a language optimized for that purpose.

Artistic Intelligence

Your Cetaceans may follow a completely different purpose than the Humans in their collective drive for Exploration and Expansion. Maybe orcas are content with their place and numbers, and are more interested in passively examining and praising the beauty of their universe.

Their whole language and thinking is perfected towards communicating things they perceive as curious or beautiful to other members of their species. Every Orca is a natural Poet and in large groups, they weave intricate pictures of 3D sound and bubbles - vastly more complex than any Opera or Symphony.

What did we miss?

We typically just point a single microphone at a group of whales and just marvel at their singing, but we are missing the greater context. From the perspective of an 'audience' orca, passing through the soundscape created by the orca 'choir', they are transported to another place and receive an emotion-packed 3D picture of the northern Atlantic the day the Titanic sank. Or maybe of the heroic fight of the Sperm Whale that sank the Essex

How did we find it?

We actually have an Installation that might help finding these patterns. The Antares Observatory is a huge array of statically suspended aquatic probes. Though primarily used for astrophysical purposes, they are also equipped with microphones which from time to time pick up whale signals.

ANTARES Neutrino Telescope

By coincidence, a group of orcas holds a conversation inside the array, and for the first time scientists get their hands on an expansive 3D dataset of the ocean space surrounding a chatting group of Whales. And with some clever data reduction, they find that the sounds and interference patterns are bafflingly close to the ship formations of the battle of Trafalgar.

Now What?

The parts of the language you already observed were just the tip of the iceberg. There is a set of very simple 'words' which are just flat 1-dimensional noises, used in a similar way to conjunctions and auxiliary verbs. Earlier your scientist just found those and thought they were done. But the part that actually carries the most meaning are those 3D-patterns which can be compared to our nouns and verbs - and may be as complex as a full playback of a thing the whale heard/saw.

Once we know where to look, we can start to take these sound-transmitted 3D-Pictures and play them back through a similar array of mics and speakers suspended below an exploration ship. As I already hinted, for things which are of common interest to humans and whales look for important events of naval history - those might be things that are preserved in the collective memory of both humans and whales, and a nice starting point for a conversation that could lead to a slow deciphering of more complex language constructs.

For the most obvious use - think about the implications for historians and ocean researchers. All those lost ships and planes just lie in their backyards. Secret nuclear submarines might not be that stealthy to an Orca. They can tell you where those 'rogue nations' dump their nuclear waste, and show you the way to undiscovered resource deposits.

  • $\begingroup$ This is a very well thought out answer, complete with an "accidental discovery" that relies on seeing the 3D-ness of the language. Nice! $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2021 at 19:56

Alien cetaceans show up.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

/To save Earth from an alien probe, Admiral James T. Kirk and his fugitive crew go back in time to San Francisco in 1986 to retrieve the only beings who can communicate with it: humpback whales./

In the movie, aliens show up looking for their whale kindred. Humans had wiped them out some time ago which poses problems. It has been 35 years. You can borrow from the finest of the original Star Trek movies. There is a scene with Dr McCoy meeting a lady in a hospital elevator that I still think of sometimes.

In your world aliens show up but there are still cetaceans doing their thing because we did not kill them all. Ignoring we landlubbers, the aliens enter communications with their primitive brethren and ... sistren? Hmm.

Anyway, kind of like when celebrities show up in your school and only want to talk to the quiet nerd whom no-one thought much of, humans realize there is more to our whales than we had realized. We approach the aliens with uncharacteristic tact and humility and ask to participate in the conversation.

  • $\begingroup$ Twist: our mind is not suited for this kind of communication, we just can't understand. We are much better problem solvers and masters of making tools but always at a loss when contemplating the Universe and it's elusive purpose. And yet, maybe, the aliens, cetaceans and us may indeed try to walk this path of discovery together... I am actually writing something along these lines. Maybe I should scrap it. $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2021 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ Space-faring visitors would definitely work, but it would change our reality drastically from the world we know and introduce almost a carte-blanche for deus-ex-machinas. Also, a key part of the challenge in discovering such intelligence is overcoming our own biases in the first place. $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2021 at 19:53

This question is (unintentionally) fallacious.

If cetaceans were intelligent in your story, or even super-intelligent, what would it mean? You want a story where they've been secretly doing "intelligent things" (even if these things amount to little more than "intelligent thinking"), and humanity eventually realizes that it is so.

If there are no overt signs of technology (which, I add, could include signs that would be invisible to more primitive species), then we can conclude that the only mechanism by which humanity could discover their genius would be some magical science fiction tech that can peer into minds themselves.

I do not consider that technology to be implausible... we already have crude versions of it with medical imaging. We can see parts of a brain "light up", and we can sometimes decode what is happening in that brain. If we were to follow the projections of that technology into the future for a few decades/centuries, it might get to the point that would seem magical to you and me. Presumably, you could see inside the whale's brain (maybe even from a distance), and know exactly what's going on in their head. And with the proper software to translate it (developed and refined in tandem with the imaging), you could make sense of it.

Provided of course, it's not so far advanced that we simply can't understand it at all.

So, what is it that the whales have been up to all along? Were they calculating pi to a trillion digits? Working out the mass of the Higgs boson from first principles? You have to come up with something they've been doing that is both plausible and not woo-woo nonsense.

None of those things can be done by a whale. While the raw computational power might exist within their brains, there's no reason for them to develop thoughts along those lines. They serve no survival purpose, and so no evolutionary pressure exists to compel such. Furthermore, these things are impossible to work out from first principles. Humans only discovered chemistry and physics after banging rocks together and mixing reagents (mostly accidentally) for a long, long time.

Without such concepts, their language will be simple, not complex. You don't need a complicated language for a simple environment. You for instance, when's the last time you spontaneously coined 2,488 new words for variations on the idea of slippery? How about new conjugations for the verb to slip?

While this doesn't preclude them having language, it will be no more complex than that of non-human animals in general, or at most of being like the languages of our distant ancestors with limited vocabulary/complexity.

Thus we are limited to scenarios that match reality. Cetaceans are clever animals that can be taught some symbolic languages, and are clever compared to most other animals but not to humans.

I'm sorry, but your premise doesn't work, and I cannot see any minor adjustments to it that would make it work. There's just nothing to uncover here.

  • $\begingroup$ "You don't need a complicated language for a simple environment." How is a 3D environment with waves, tides and currents more "simple" than a neolithic hunter-gatherer's mostly 2D static landscape? And those humans were just as smart genetically as today. $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2021 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ @KevinKostlan Neolithic hunters' language was simple too. This isn't a species that needs to invent 90,000 word legalese jargons for each of its many highly specialized occupations. If you've got your heart set on this for a story, then you're going to need to do the hand-wavium "I can't write beings more intelligent than myself" thing. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Jan 27, 2021 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnO Neolithic hunters (and Neolithic early farmers as well) often have incredibly complex languages on par with modern societies that have high amounts of legalese or scientific terminology. A lot of Native American languages are incredibly complex and have words that have no simple analogue in English, like zaasigaakwii, which is an idiom referring to a group of birds landing at the end of a long flight only to be hit by a heavy storm (which is mostly used to refer to an unpredicted disaster at the worst time). $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2021 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ @KevinKostlan They don't. These things are measurable. And when we rank languages by complexity, hunter-gatherer languages are at the bottom of the list. The languages of technological civilizations are at the top. And you don't even have to cheat and include obtuse jargons for their vocab count to outdo everything else by orders of magnitude. Every other count's up there too. You need more words for more concepts, you need more grammar rules for subtler meanings to be conveyed. Hunter-gatherer societies just don't need either of these. You're mistaking obtuse grammar for complexity. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Jan 28, 2021 at 6:24

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