by Sylvain Comeau
Anyone with pets knows that animals are a lot smarter than
their reputation suggests. In a lecture sponsored by Concordias
Science College on Oct. 11, Harvard University Professor of Psychology
and Neuroscience Marc Hauser said that animals demonstrate intelligence
based on several surprising conceptual criteria.
In recent years, there has been a revolution in our understanding
of animal behaviour. Today some biologists argue that animals have a much
richer mental life than we ever thought and that includes thinking,
planning, and having and pursuing goals.
Animals master certain skills
Years of experiments testing animal intelligence have shown them thinking
in many ways like us. Hauser derided the traditional, limited view of
a hierarchy of intelligence, which states that humans (naturally) stand
at the top of the intelligence pyramid, with the dimmest creatures at
the bottom. As is usually the case, reality is much more complex than
such a tidy theory.
Hauser suggested that adaptation leads to a kind of relative intelligence,
so that animals are much smarter than we are in certain skills, and in
the right context.
Evolution moves along branches, not in a hierarchy, and there is
no hierarchy of intelligence either. Instead, there are specific skills
that animals have evolved to solve certain problems, while we have other
abilities and skills to solve our problems.
If you asked humans to navigate through a house using only their
ears, they would fail miserably. Bats would look brilliant at the same
task, because they have developed a kind of sonar that gives them detailed
information about their surroundings. But if you required them to use
only their eyes, humans look much smarter.
Nor does our species enjoy a monopoly on certain conceptual measures of
basic intelligence such as an understanding of numbers. Animals
understand numbers, Hauser said. Although some people would
argue that we invented numbers, in fact they are important for all species.
For example, chimpanzees in the wild will kill foreign chimps, but only
if they outnumber it by three to one at least.
He described an experiment in which monkeys were asked to pick a lunch
pail after they saw pieces of apple placed in each.
The monkeys consistently picked the lunch pail with two pieces of
apple instead of one, three instead of two, and four instead of three.
They did this spontaneously, without any training. The conclusion is that
animals can count in small numbers, and that our numerical sense is biologically
predetermined. We have an instinct for numbers, which we share with all
Animals also seem to possess an innate sense of self, as was shown in
a 1970 experiment in which a mirror was placed in a monkey cage. At first
the monkeys seemed to think they were looking at another monkey, but when
an experimenter put some markings on the mirror, the monkeys quickly
realized that the markings were not moving along with their reflection.
So very quickly, they started using the mirror to examine parts of their
bodies they had never seen before. They knew that they were looking at
Lying is another very human trait which indicates enough intelligence
to break from traditional patterns of communication to mislead or deceive.
Hauser witnessed a wily monkey in Kenya who got himself out of a jam by
giving a false warning about imminent danger. He was being chased by several
females in his group, so he made a sound which means a leapard is
nearby. There was no leapord, but the instinctive response of the
chasers was to climb a tree, sparing the quick-thinking liar.
While such complexity in animal communication suggests intelligence that
goes beyond simple instinct, animals have much richer thought than
they have ways of communicating.
Thats because there is not enough information in the signals
that they give; they cant say, for example, sorry I made a mistake,
there is no leopard, he explained.
Hauser concluded by saying that his work and that of others interested
in animal intelligence have shown that the alleged human monopoly on intelligence
is an outdated invention of humans.
We are just beginning to have a good understanding of some of the
species differences and some of their similarities. The exciting
thing is that we are on this planet with a lot of interesting, thinking