Accepting Alternate Forms Of Intelligence In The Animal Kingdom

Our inability to perceive animal intelligence revealed the limits of our own. Via the Wall Street Journal, Frans de Waal writes:

Who is smarter: a person or an ape? Well, it depends on the task. Consider Ayumu, a young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University who, in a 2007 study, put human memory to shame. Trained on a touch screen, Ayumu could recall a random series of nine numbers, from 1 to 9, and tap them in the right order, even though the numbers had been displayed for just a fraction of a second and then replaced with white squares.

I tried the task myself and could not keep track of more than five numbers—and I was given much more time than the brainy ape. In the study, Ayumu outperformed a group of university students by a wide margin. The next year, he took on the British memory champion Ben Pridmore and emerged the “chimpion.”

A growing body of evidence shows, that we have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence. Can an octopus use tools? Do chimpanzees have a sense of fairness? Can birds guess what others know? Do rats feel empathy for their friends? Just a few decades ago we would have answered “no” to all such questions. No we’re not so sure.

Underlying many of our mistaken beliefs about animal intelligence is the problem of negative evidence. If I walk through a forest in Georgia, where I live, and fail to see or hear the pileated woodpecker, am I permitted to conclude that the bird is absent? Of course not. We know how easily these splendid woodpeckers hop around tree trunks to stay out of sight. All I can say is that I lack evidence.

It is quite puzzling, therefore, why the field of animal cognition has such a long history of claims about the absence of capacities based on just a few strolls through the forest. Such conclusions contradict the famous dictum of experimental psychology according to which “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

8 Comments on "Accepting Alternate Forms Of Intelligence In The Animal Kingdom"

  1. I wait for the day we can communicate two-ways with animals. As a child gazing out of the school bus window, I always wondered how animals looked at the world.

  2. Rhoid Rager | Apr 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm |

    A major factor of the conceit of humans is our tendency to assume that our way of communicating is the most effective way and that the ideas represented by language have given birth to the measured level of progress displayed by industrial civilization. How mistaken this is. Blind cooperation by the bulk of the species with the self-centered goals of elites and the banal toil by untold billions daily produces our material progress much more than a limited set of specific glorious beliefs expressed in language. We obsess over language, gauge the intelligence (sentience) of other humans by the way they shape their own utterances (most acutely in children, who exhibit a very sensitive emotional intelligence many adults lack), and we assume the animals that don’t possess our level of utterance complexity also lack our intelligence. Also, our obsession with the realm of the spoken/written situates our philosophy to the limited material world, encouraging us to ignore the unspoken, tacit realm of communication, the pre-existing and profound basis for the spoken word. Indeed, intelligence precedes everything.

  3. MaxTperson | Apr 13, 2013 at 2:20 pm |

    It seems to me that case of misnuderstanding even the beginning premises of measuring another lifeform’s abilities and world views, might be drastic in the case of cuttlefish, I mean the variant with extremely rapid optical animated displays on it’s skin, to which “other cuttlefish seem to react”. Since those signals seem to be sent at slightly higher phase than our eyes are tuned for, and for significant part at different wavelenght of light/color that we can see… and as cuttlefish seem to have extremely rapidly reacting and adjusting neural systems… and as they seem to move in packs… they just might be more of a herd entity, like nomadic bee-hive is, than individuals, thus meaning that current attempts to measure single captured cuttlefishes reactions, as well as attempts to study reactions of cuttlefish packs to single robotic cuttlefish replicas (without ability for the precise animated color pattern displays) may be automatically doomed to fail, resulting us to assume that cuttlefish are not very bright… just incomprehensible and likely to be aggressive, as they attack the robotic cuttlefish. Like, how would we react if we would see approaching a colorless, mute, floating human head replica, approaching ourselves ? Lone non-communicating cuttlefish replica robot might seem just as unpleasant and threatening to pack of cuttlefish… especially if it is hive-type entity.

  4. sveltesvengali | Apr 13, 2013 at 3:22 pm |

    Intelligence is a very subjective barometer that reeks of antropocentrism in most cases, which is usually predicated on our very narrow understanding and application of linguistics.

    One prominent example of this is ants, which seem highly similar to us in virtually every way (eg. high-level social organization and communication; formation of large-scale communities and colonies [ie. cities and towns]; domestication of other animals and “livestock” [eg. certain species of aphid]; growing and cultivation of fungal gardens; use and application of possible knowledge [eg. ventilation systems in colonies]; waging of organized, tactical warfare [eg. against other ant colonies and species, termites, etc.]; etc.), and yet aren’t acknowledged as being similarly sentient by virtue of our limits of comprehending them, since they don’t happen to utilize vocalizations as a form of communication, but rather use the relayance of largely undecipherable chemical signals to accomplish the same purpose.

    This is but one example of course, but the sole fact that I have to pick out human characteristics to even make this categorization really goes to show the limits of our comprehension.

  5. BuzzCoastin | Apr 13, 2013 at 7:36 pm |

    > A growing body of evidence shows, that we have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence.

    Humans have to be the most dull witted species out there!
    I don’t know one animal that willingly has
    a full time job, car or mortgage.
    Usually they can fend for themselves by living in Nature and sometimes
    they con us into taking care of them.
    I also don’t know of any animal
    other than humans
    that consistently destroys their living environment
    so that it becomes less habitable and less able to support life.

    I agree:
    A growing body of evidence shows, that we have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence.

    And I seriously doubt other animals overestimate human intelligence.

  6. BuzzCoastin | Apr 13, 2013 at 7:39 pm |

    Hey Matt, thanks for increasing the font size, but that extra garbage that comes with copying text from the article has got to go. It makes you look desperate for clicks and doesn’t really work very well. Sometimes the control commands get confused.
    A growing body of evidence shows, that we have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence. – See more at: disinfo./2013/04/accepting-alternate-forms-of-intelligence-in-the-animal-kingdom/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+disinfo%2FoMPh+%28Disinformation%29&utm_content=Netvibes#sthash.GxlDSSRc.dpuf

    Now every copy & paste is an adventure.

    • Simon Selvfed | Apr 14, 2013 at 4:34 am |

      Yes this feature is somewhat needy in it’s nature since you mostly don’t have original content… I get the instinct, but it doesn’t do you any good.

  7. disqus_KkThmCWL3Q | Apr 14, 2013 at 5:31 pm |

    Jeremy Narby’s “Intelligence in Nature” (2006).

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