Sunday, June 24, 2012

Animal Intelligence is Always Underestimated

I'm an animal person. I write books that feature a dog. So I occasionally sound off about animals. Here goes...
Warning: If you're a scientist, read no further, as you may find this post an affront to your profession. (Hey, I appreciate scientists, and I'm even a bit of a closet science geek myself – ask me about entangled particles, one of the stranger aspects of quantum mechanics – but this is just one of those subjects where scientists have spent far too long catching up with what regular people have always known.)
Here's a truth as I know it, a statement with which more than half the country – the pet owners – will agree. (Oh, the very thought of popular opinion rearing its ugly head into the world of hard knowledge is not just disagreeable, but naive. Yet here I go, another philistine, steeped in his own militant ignorance.)

The statement: Animals are much smarter than the people who measure animal smarts think.

Nearly all people with dogs and cats will tell you stories of their pets' amazing abilities. When this happens, any nearby scientists try not to roll their eyes. Scientists think that people attribute intelligence to hard-wired behaviors. People misconstrue animal behavior and call it smarts, they think. People confuse a myriad of observations and biased opinions with fact, they think. From the scientists' perspective, they are correct.
So why would I even venture into such scientific hot water? Because all of my life I usually found myself agreeing with scientists except when it came to their pronouncements on animal intelligence.
When I was a kid, scientists applied what they now realize were crude techniques to determine that animals were not very smart. Birds had “bird-brains.” Horses had about enough smarts to eat and that was it. Dogs merely did whatever would get them a treat; no significant intelligence was needed.
They've come a long way, those scientists. And as their testing has gotten more sophisticated, animals have – surprise – gotten a lot smarter.
Scientists now know that crows make and use basic tools.
Scientists have shown that parrots can count and identify different kinds of fruit and tell it all in English. Wait, let me say that again. Parrots can look at a pile of fruit and tell us what and how many there are in ENGLISH. How many scientists out there can speak Parrot? A University of Oregon scientist did a study showing that when it comes to telling impressionist paintings from abstract expressionist paintings, trained pigeons can do it with greater accuracy and speed than can college students. Scientists have learned that geese go to great lengths to keep their extended families together while they migrate thousands of miles. And they get where they're going in the dark. At night.
Scientists now know that orangutans will purposefully deceive them and tell lies and hide the evidence of their deceit from the scientists. Scientists have discovered that dogs can read people's faces and understand what people want just by the look in people's eyes.
Scientists know that chimps can learn a huge amount of human sign language even as the scientists haven't learned how to speak any substantial amount of chimp language.
Scientists have discovered that dolphins and elephants have self-awareness. These animals understand mirrors. They know the difference between themselves and others.
Scientists have even found that fish – fish! – can recognize their buddies. (Even I thought that all fish looked alike.)
True-Wildlife blog
Every year, more papers are published that detail scientists' discoveries that animals are smarter than people used to think. Just like what pet-owners have been saying all along.
Emotions are the next area where scientists are catching up with what regular people have always known. The people in white coats have historically said that our perception of animal emotions is merely anthropomorphism, people ascribing human-style emotions to the behavior of animals. Yet slowly, scientific study is discovering the emotions of animals. Dogs, especially, have many human-style emotions. Those of joy and happiness are manifest. But melancholy, fear, worry, and grief aren't far behind. It won't be long before brain scans and other evidence show clear signs of less obvious emotions.
Those of us who know animals know how smart they are, how emotional they are, how their worlds are immeasurably complicated.
Just like the worlds of scientists.
Have you ever noticed that we humans have always had a hubris that says that we are special, that we are much more than just another extra-clever animal? We assume our specialness just as we assume that animals are not very special. Prove it, we say about animal smarts even as we regularly engage in behavior that might have other species saying “prove it” about our own smarts.
Animal lovers have known all along that in fact animals are much like us in many ways. Yes, we humans are clever, perhaps too much for our own good. But our arrogance is such that we often don't realize the truth.
We aren't as smart as we think. And animals are smarter than we think.


  1. Thank you...Thank you for confirming I'm not a 'crazy' human that just applies anthropomorphism animals and their behavior. Luke and Leia are my cats; Leia being the elder of the two.

    For some reason, the act of my taking a seat in the easy chair as opposed to the couch is the signal for both of them to compete for my lap. On this particular occasion, the chair was facing the kitchen, which included a door in which I had installed a pet door. I sat down, and Luke settled in my lap purring in contentment. 5 minutes later, Leia came in from outdoors and sashayed over to my feet, sat down and looked up at Luke sitting in my lap as if to say "Move!". Luke merely laid one ear back. "Fine!" Leia turned, walked back into the kitchen and lept up onto the kitchen table. Both cats know this is the biggest "no-no" in the household. Any other time, when I say "Leia! No!" she quickly ceases whatever behavior I'm taking exception to. Not this time.

    "Leia! No!" Leia sat on her haunches, her back to us...apparently now deaf. I was appalled...she always had obeyed before. Luke is usually the one that plays dumb.

    "Leia! Get Down!" I said loudly. Leia calmly licked her paw, seemingly oblivious. Luke's ears were skewed...he was feeling uneasy.

    "Leia! Get off of that table!!" I was now yelling...still no response from her. Luke, however, jumped off my lap and stalked was no longer restful there.

    Immediately, Leia jumped off the table and silently walked over to the easy chair and lept into my lap. I was dumbfounded, but couldn't help laughing. "you are such a little wench!" I said, scratching her behind her ears.

    Now I ask you...was this all a coincidence? Or did Leia (the better hunter of the two) apply a great strategy? No scientist will ever make me believe that an animal's only motivation is 'treats'.

    1. Todd says: Great example of animal strategy! No question in my mind that Leia knew exactly what she was doing.