Does anyone really believe animals are smarter than us?

By Greg Stevens

Our culture has rightfully noted that people place too high a premium and sense of importance on “intelligence”. Unfortunately, we have gone about solving this problem in the wrong way. Instead of teaching people that intelligence shouldn’t be a person’s only source of self-worth and that there are plenty of assets that a person who is not intelligent may offer, we have decided instead to turn “intelligence” into a meaningless generality that we use in order to give people self-esteem.

There have in recent years been efforts made, particularly in the media, to redefine “intelligence”. We are now told that there is “emotional intelligence”, “social intelligence”, “musical intelligence” and “kinesthetic intelligence”. If you are the sensitive, philosophising type, some people have postulated that you may even have “existential intelligence”, although it is unclear exactly how this could ever be measured… or even what it really is.

Why do people do this? Well, with all these different types of intelligence, nobody has to ever feel bad about themselves. No matter how doltish you might actually be, someone somewhere will have invented some new kind of intelligence that you can claim as your own. Look under your seats for your prize: it turns out everybody gets to be smart!

Animals get by just fine without our intelligence.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review podcast, researcher Scott Barry Kaufman even suggested that we shouldn’t even assess different “types” of intelligence, because that still encourages comparisons between people. Intelligence should be defined in a way that doesn’t allow people to be compared to each other, Kaufman suggests. Because if you compare people to each other, someone might end up feeling bad. (We are not making this up.)

Now this desperate white-washing of “intelligence” has even spread to comparison between humans and animals. Some researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia have a book coming out and have been making the rounds doing interviews and press releases, focusing on this sound bite: humans aren’t smarter than animals, just different.

The same absurd, knee-jerk cultural response against comparing people with one another is now being deployed between species. What animal-lovers should be trying to do is break our cultural association between intelligence and superiority. They should be pointing out that we must love and respect animals whether they are intelligent or not. They should be pointing out that animals get by just fine without our intelligence.

That would be the, um, intelligent, way to approach the problem. But instead they do the sloppy, easy, feel-good thing: dilute the idea of “intelligence” until it is meaningless.

So what is intelligence?

Despite what the hippies would like you to believe, “intelligence” is not just a vague gloss for “effectiveness”. This is the watered-down meaning that has emerged from the barrage of “types of intelligence” from social to musical that we have been forced to accept in our revisionist, feel-good world.

For many decades, researchers have known that the classic notion of “intelligence” is loosely correlated with a collection of different skills and abilities that are all distinct, but interlocking. These skills include a number of basic, low-level, and easily measured cognitive faculties, such as reaction time (speed of response), working memory span (short term memory capacity), pattern recognition, mental rotation and problem solving.

It is a scientific fact and it will not go away.

These skills are “interlocking” because they are usually at least partially correlated with one another, and having a high rating in one of these factors can end up at least partially helping your ability in another. For example, if you have a faster overall reaction time it may help you to have faster problem-solving speeds. If you have a greater working memory span, it might make you better at mental rotation or pattern recognition.

Moreover, practice and training can make you better at any of these things, so it is important to realise that all of these factors can be influenced by a person’s knowledge, education and prior experiences.

People project too much emotion onto the idea of “intelligence”. The fact is, some people have a larger short-term memory capacity than others. Some people have faster reaction times. These are scientific facts and will not evaporate regardless of how much mealy-mouthed, feel-good redefinition of terminology goes on.

If educators and cultural anthropologists want to argue that we should not attach as much importance as we do to these abilities, or that these abilities should be examined separately instead of lumped together into a single “IQ score”, they might be on to something.

But to say that we simply “shouldn’t compare people at all” is absurd. We can, as these over-thinkers might put it, ‘“deconstruct” our cultural preconceptions of what it means to be “smart”’ all we want. But it won’t change the fact that some people do some things better than others.

What about animals?

When we talk about the special intelligence that humans have, there is a very specific and measurable ability associated with humans and only humans: abstract rule-based symbol manipulation. This shows up in our use of language, which is highly structured and allows an infinitely complex aggregation of symbols to create new meanings.

Probably never happened

Probably never happened

For you, as for any human, it is fairly easy to understand that sentences are made up of noun phrases, verb phrases and sometimes prepositional phrases. (You may not know the specific grammatical terms for the various parts of a sentence, but pretty much all of us can use them correctly.)

These rules are what enable us to build and understand complex sentences. You can go from saying “That cat chased the mouse” to “The cat that the dog chased chased the mouse that scampered past the barn”, and you can even go a step further to declare “I hate that the cat that the dog chased chased the mouse that scampered past the barn.”

Meanings in human language are multi-layered, deeply structured, and incredibly complex. And animals have absolutely nothing to compare to it. This bears repeating, because so many people do not understand it: no other animals have anything remotely approaching this sort of complex linguistic ability.

Dolphins have an extremely broad set of gestures that they use to convey meaning, ranging from a gentle nuzzle of the rostrum to smacking each other in the head with small fish. Chimpanzees can learn the individual associations between hundreds of human sign-language signs and their meanings.

Loopy the bottle-nosed dolphin: not as smart as your auntie Marge

Loopy the bottle-nosed dolphin: not as smart as your auntie Marge

But all of these are binary links between two things: symbol and meaning. A hand-sign means “hungry”. A nuzzle of the head means “follow”. None of these things are language, because they have no capacity to use rules to combine symbols together to create greater meanings.

The capacity for rule-based symbol manipulation has significance far beyond language. It is this same cognitive capacity that allowed humans to develop art and technology. Our ability to come up with very abstract rules that link symbols to one another is responsible for the vast difference in culture between humans and anything else on our planet.

Many animal lovers are complete hypocrites.

It is trivialising our own accomplishment, and also scientifically incorrect, to simply say “other animals didn’t develop technology because they didn’t need to”. The fact is that they lack a basic capacity to develop any of the culture, art or technology that humans have – because they lack the capacity for rule-based symbol manipulation.

We have it, other animals don’t.

The hypocrisy of animal rights activists

Just as a minor aside, many animal lovers are complete hypocrites. They like to focus on killer whales, dolphins, elephants, and monkeys when they talk about how smart animals are. You all know why, too: it’s because they are cute. They make adorable sounds and they do adorable things. People go to zoos and want to pet them.

You know what’s smarter than all of those species?  An octopus. Studies have shown absolutely amazing things about octopodes. They have a sense of self, they recognise themselves in the mirror and they learn socially. An octopus can watch another octopus solve a complex problem and then when that first octopus is given the same problem it will solve it on the first try, without any practice or trial and error – indicating that it learned just by observing.

This is an extremely rare skill in the animal world, and almost no non-primates are able to do it. So why don’t octopodes get more play in conversations about how smart animals are? Not to put too fine a point on it, because they are gross.

It’s OK not to be smart

Animal lovers are absolutely right to advocate for better treatment of animals. We should respect the living things we share this planet with. We should constantly fight against animal cruelty and we should always be on the look-out for ways we can make life better for non-human animals around us. We should love animals, respect animals and treat them well.

But we don’t have to go around pretending that they are “smart” to do that.

Animals are sensitive and intuitive. Your pets really do love you. They will read your emotions and respond to them. They will solve problems through trial and error and will learn from their experiences. They will transmit signals to their peers through very complicated systems of signs and signals. But that doesn’t mean they have language. It doesn’t mean that they have symbolic thought in the sense that humans do. They don’t have science or art or technology – not simply because they choose not to, but because they cannot.

This type of mental faculty is one of the very core components of what people mean when they talk about humans being “intelligent”. It’s not being mean or rude or “prejudiced” to point this out. It’s a simple scientific fact. It doesn’t mean we should love animals less. It just means that we shouldn’t base how we treat animals on whether or not we think they are “smart”.