Getting Smarts

Intelligence Is Today’s Unknown Country

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.

Like intelligence in fish, for instance. The orange-dotted tuskfish digs a clam out of the sand, carries it over to a rock, and repeatedly throws it against the rock to crush it. Says one researcher, "It requires a lot of forward thinking, because there are a number of steps involved. For a fish, it's a pretty big deal."1 Darwinists typically short-circuit discussions of intelligent behavior by insisting that natural selection just naturally selected it. But that a fish brain is capable of such a behavior, irrespective of its origin, is an unexpected finding.

Intelligent Invertebrates

Some invertebrates, especially mollusks, are also unexpectedly intelligent. Underwater footage shows that, in the first known example of tool use among octopi, one species of octopus has learned to dig up and use discarded halved coconut shells as a shelter.2 Neatly halved coconuts are a human discard, so the behavior may actually have been learned in recent millennia. Researchers think that the octopi were using some less satisfactory material before, but they had the intelligence to just switch. According to researcher Mark ­Norman,

They probe their arms down to loosen the mud, then they rotate them out.

After turning the shells so the open side faces upwards, the octopuses blow jets of mud out of the bowl before extending their arms around the shell—or if they have two halves, stacking them first, one inside the other—before stiffening their legs and tip-toeing away.3

But intelligence is very unevenly distributed among invertebrates. Clams and oysters are also mollusks, and they are as sharp as marbles. Having eight tentacles and no shell possibly favors the development of intelligence in octopi.4 Which raises an interesting question: How much intelligence in animals is driven by a given body plan, as opposed to descent from one or another branch of the putative Tree of Life?

A Crucial Ingredient

If certain body plans favor the increase of information as a problem-solving tool, there is potential intelligence in nature—like potential energy perhaps—and we do not yet know how to talk about it. The reason we do not yet know how to talk about it is that we have focused on how much blind nature can do via natural selection, without intelligence. Yet there is no reason to believe that lack of intelligence can produce intelligence by material forces alone. For one thing, intelligence is different by its very nature.

As Darwinist G. C. Williams admitted in 2004,

Information doesn't have mass or charge or length in millimeters. Likewise, matter doesn't have bytes. You can't measure so much gold in so many bytes. It doesn't have redundancy, or fidelity, or any of the other descriptors we apply to information. This dearth of shared descriptors makes matter and information two separate domains of existence, which have to be discussed separately, in their own terms.5

But these two separate domains unite in life forms. In an article in Scientific American in 2003, physicist Jacob D. Bekenstein noted: "Ask anybody what the physical world is made of, and you are likely to be told 'matter and energy.' Yet if we have learned anything from engineering, biology and physics, information is just as crucial an ingredient."6

We won't get very far in understanding intelligence in life forms until we take the domain of information seriously, and Darwinian materialism is the greatest obstacle at present. •

1. ScienceDaily: . Here's a video:
2. BBC News
3. BBC News Here is video footage of an octopus manipulating two shells:
4. Here is a video of an octopus opening a twist-lid jar for a food reward inside:
5. G. C. Williams, "A Package of Information" in J. Brockman, ed., The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 43:
6. "Information in the holographic universe," Scientific American

From Salvo 23 (Winter 2012)
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is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. She blogs at Blazing Cat Fur, Evolution News & Views, MercatorNet, Salvo, and Uncommon Descent.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #23, Winter 2012 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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