Animal Intelligence: What defines it, and how do we recognize it?

   An article on bees and complex problem solving caught my attention today: It's one of several I've come across recently about animal intelligence and problem solving. The bees were able to solve an issue supercomputers have trouble with, and also recognize human faces. It seems that the more we measure and probe the abilities of non-human animals, the more we learn that they too possess abilities once though to be only within human grasp. I remember browsing through Cracked and finding this little gem on crows: 


   Animal intelligence has always intrigued me. Most of how we label things like intelligence and language comes from human standards. As Albert Einstein so eloquently put, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." And it seems to me that we often do judge a fish by its ability to climb, or in this case, solve complex math problems. Things like teaching young, complex pattern recognition, tool use and communication are present in a surprising number of creatures, large to small. Even ants!


  And this isn't even considering emotional capability with the more social animals. All of this leads me to question human interaction with other species, and our sense of duty to them. Why do a good portion of people look at each other with compassion, but see other species as only resources to use as we see fit? Is utilitarianism ok in this sense, but not within human society? Why? Because they are less intelligent by standards X, Y and Z, or is it simply the tradition of thought of millennia? Arrogance, simple ignorance, or something else entirely?


   A lot of the response seems to deal with the idea of instinct. The prevailing line of thought when I discuss these things with other people is that animals only seem to have abilities like ours; what's really going on is some complex instinctual awareness, with the animal itself only experiencing vague emotions and sharp senses. Autopilot. But humans too seem to operate this way a majority of the time:


   Hopefully studying biology in greater depth will give me some answers and insight in both areas. It's a very interesting field and I'm looking forward to more formal education within it soon.




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Comment by Doug Reardon on July 1, 2011 at 4:24pm
Human Intelligence: What defines it, and how do we recognize it?
Comment by Dr. del Toro on July 1, 2011 at 6:21pm

I'd heard about the crow one from a friend.  Animals are very good at what helps them survive.  I like the quote from Einstein.


Animals have many uses.  Among the various uses for animals, some are also food.

People also have many uses.  We use everything.  It's when we don't use everything that it becomes a problem.  If we stopped hunting deer, the deer population would explode causing a profound impact on that particular ecosystem.  Not to mention the amount of car accidents involving deer (which can be quite deadly) would most likely rise as well.


Just like corn was developed throught genetic engineering, so were many animals.  Cattle, chickens, pigs, dogs, cats (not so useful, lol, I can imagine it now, cat-drawn sled races), horses, donkeys, sheep.  We all have a place in the world.  Ours just happens to be on top.  So yes, I think we do have a duty.  We have much more responsibility now that we have figured out so much and are continuing to figure out more.


We can't get too emotional about it though.  Some things have to die for others to live, just as we will need to die to make way for future generations.  What about plants?  Should we look at them as only resources to use as we see fit?  Harvesting carrots destroys the entire plant (just one example).


I love my pets.  My birds have tons of fun when they are brought out of their cage and they can be quite demanding at times (my parakeet loves to vocalize his opinion that the sliding glass door should be open because he says so, but sometimes it's winter and the cold isn't good for little birdies like him).


I may look at some species as something for us to use (like cows and chickens), but I do so with understanding, not some arrogant sense of "I'm smarter than that dumb cow".

Comment by Dr. del Toro on July 1, 2011 at 6:29pm
Oh, and Happy Birthday Canada! 144.
Comment by Stephen Walski on July 1, 2011 at 6:37pm

Okay say you are able to judge a fish by its smartness as a fish. Its still a frigging fish. So its the smartest fish .. yippee. Thats like being the smartest coma patient. Doesnt really earn you a nobel prize.


Self awareness and logical reasoning are the big gap points that define human intelligence.


It is kind of ironic that your concerned with arrogance in judging other species. Something no animal could ever be concerned with. Can mans arrogance even offend a creature incapable of understanding the concept? If its not offensive to them is it really offensive to call the cow stupid?




Comment by Mike Glickman on July 1, 2011 at 6:56pm

Dawkins just posted an interesting article on a similar topic. Also, Sam Harris addressed the vegetarian--to be or not to be--debate during his "Ask SH Anything" video which is posted on TA.


Personally, I love animals and am one of those weirdos who feels more empathy towards animals than I do many humans. (see the quote: "I love all dogs more than most people.")


What it comes down to is that humans find ourselves at the top of the food chain and we dictate what type of smarts are the most important. What has always fascinated me is the notion that to some uber-advanced species, we are akin to bacteria. I wonder whether they would view us as a resource or value our feelings and remedial intelligence.

Comment by Doug Reardon on July 1, 2011 at 8:42pm
A person with an IQ below 30 usually needs to be taken care of and cannot live independently. A dog doesn't have an IQ and usually does fine.
Comment by Stephen Walski on July 1, 2011 at 8:50pm

The argument you just used is a fish cant drink from a cup but a person can... just as meaningless



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