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October 25, 2001 Animals are smarter than we think: neuroscientist



Marc Hauser

Harvard Psychology Professor Marc Hauser

by Sylvain Comeau

Anyone with pets knows that animals are a lot smarter than their reputation suggests. In a lecture sponsored by Concordia’s 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 species.”

Animal intelligence

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 themselves.”

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.”

“That’s because there is not enough information in the signals that they give; they can’t 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 creatures.”