From the New Issue: Intelligence is Today’s Unknown Country

Getting Smarts

Intelligence Is Today’s Unknown Country
by Denyse O’Leary

In recent issues (Salvo 21 and 22), we looked at animal intelligence among primates, birds, and reptiles. We found that the claims for chimpanzee intelligence were overrated and that, on some tests, birds or dogs do as well as or better than chimps.

One outcome of the current sanctified status of the chimpanzee as our “cousin” is our difficulty grappling with the very idea of intelligence. Human intelligence is an outlier, by orders of magnitude. So if common descent is true, it does not follow that our chimpanzee “cousin” must be vastly more intelligent than other animals. Do we expect a great scientist’s relatives to be necessarily science-minded? Talents and interests do run in families, but outliers also can appear without apparent antecedents. Contra Darwin, nature does make leaps, and background studies may not help much in accounting for extreme outliers.

At times, the assumptions behind the studies can give the impression of a detailed “tree of intelligence,” such that, if humans are smarter than chimps, mammals must be smarter than birds, and birds smarter than reptiles. But intelligence isn’t quite like that. First, we don’t really know what intelligence is, in the sense that we know what water is. Definitions are on offer, of course, but they mainly describe what intelligence enables. And when we look into evidence for animal intelligence, we risk making some counterintuitive discoveries.

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