December 13, 2007
Are Animals Intelligent?
I've been doing a lot of reading lately about the human brain -- which is finally starting to surrender its secrets to the determined inquiry of researchers.
Along the way, I got distracted: what makes humans unique? That is, how are we different from any other animal?
Animals, it turns out, exhibit most of the characteristics of intelligence.
Humans talk! you say. Well, so do many other animals. Parrots have the remarkable ability to mimic almost any sound -- from human speech to the ringing of a telephone. Bush monkeys have been observed to have a "vocabulary" that is very specific as to the type of danger: one distinct call for leopard, another for snake, another for fire.
Back in 2004, the Washington Post ran an article on a border collie named Rico, who demonstrated not only the ability to understand some 200 words, but could even do something "scientists thought only humans could do: figure out by the process of elimination that a sound he has never heard before must be the name of a toy he has never seen before."
Humans sing! Some species of birds not only can learn new songs, but have been observed to teach them to others of their kind. Coyotes sing. Whales sing.
Humans build things! And so do bees, ants, birds, and many others.
But humans use tools! Sea otters, raccoons, and others, have been observed to use tools, too: sticks to reach things, rocks to break open shells, and so on.
Humans produce art! There are elephants and gorillas who paint. But one might argue that that's just human contamination. On the other hand, we know that many other kinds of creatures do things like build nests -- with artistic flourishes, even -- the better to attract the attention of a female.
Humans have fashions! Pigs like to roll in the mud. That's not fashion, you say? How do you know?
Humans have rituals! OK, riddle me this: why do dogs circle before they lie down?
Humans have politics! In many herds, animals bray, strut, challenge, and attack -- while others bray back, court, groom, seek approval, and submit. It's behavior virtually indistinguishable from a national party convention.
Humans are foolishly destructive! But many species have been observed to breed, multiply, and consume all available resources to the point of their own extinction. And as anyone who ever let the black ant farm loose on the red ant farm knows, animals wage war, too.
Humans have WRITTEN language! As a librarian, this one had some appeal to me. But then I got to thinking. Have you ever seen a dog or cat "mark" territory? What is that if not written language? The message is much like that of many books: "I was here. Everything around here is mine." Granted, it fades, and it is "read" with your nose, but a lot of books fade away, too.
I am slowly reaching the conclusion that we may not be so special after all. Instead, our differences are more of degree than of kind. We are part of a continuum of intelligence in the great evolutionary line.
So the next time you have a conversation with your pet, show some respect. They're smarter than you thought they were. We don't know how smart they think you are.