Animals Are Smarter Than Most People Think

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CC BY 2.0. Thomas Lersch

Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal is one of many scientists rethinking the way we think about animals thinking.

Gus Lubin at Business Insider asks what's the smartest species in the world? “You might think it's humans by a long shot," he continues, "but the reality is a lot more complicated.”

I’m guessing that a lot of you reading this wouldn’t agree with Lubin's suggested answer – I know I certainly don’t think humans are the smartest, let alone by a long shot.

As I wrote when talking about the supernatural intelligence of octopuses: “We humans think we’re so fancy with our opposable thumbs and capacity for complex thought. But imagine life as an octopus ... camera-like eyes, camouflage tricks worthy of Harry Potter, and not two but eight arms – that happen to be decked out with suckers that possess the sense of taste. And not only that, but those arms? They can execute cognitive tasks even when dismembered.”

And I'm no scientist, but I'm not alone. There is a growing number of researchers who are starting to rethink intelligence, even the single-cell organism slime mold is being looked at in new light. It is a gelatinous amoeba with excellent decision-making capabilities, as measured by its success in figuring out the two-armed bandit problem.

Which isn’t to say that a brainless blob is smarter than us, but that new ways of thinking about thinking are long overdue. Just like Earth isn’t the center of the solar system, maybe humans aren’t the be-all and end-all of intelligence.

And this is made pretty clear in primatologist Frans de Waal’s new book, "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" In its smart pages, he gives hundreds of examples of surprising intelligence from non-human species, including many instances where other animals appear to be smarter than we are, notes Lubin, who gives these examples from the book:

  • Chimpanzees, for instance, can easily beat humans at recalling a set of numbers that was displayed for a fraction of a second.
  • Octopuses can learn to open pill bottles protected by childproof caps, which many humans can't figure out on their own.
  • Dogs and horses, among many species that spend time around humans, are able to recognize body language cues that are lost on us.
  • Many species can do stuff we can't even imagine: bats that map out space with echolocation; birds that figure out the complex mechanics of flight and landing; and ticks that identify passing mammals by the smell of butyric acid.

Which is all to say, we human animals are super smart in doing the things we need to do to survive, but other species may be equally clever in their own ways. Who knows, octopuses may be snickering at us because we can’t taste food with our fingertips.

"It seems highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to ten if counting is not really what a squirrel's life is about," de Waal writes. "The squirrel is very good at retrieving nuts, though, and some birds are absolute experts .... That we can't compete with squirrels and nutcrackers on this task — I even forget where I parked my car — is irrelevant, since our species does not need this kind of memory for survival the way forest animals braving a freezing winter do."

All this time we’ve been measuring animal intelligence in comparison to our own skill sets – how stupid is that?

Lubin writes:

De Waal talks at length about the spotted history of the field, describing experiments where researchers wrongly concluded that non-human primates don’t recognize faces and that elephants don’t use tools or recognize reflections. He points to a whole series of flawed cognition tests that gave human babies clear advantages over ape babies. He criticizes supposed tests of dog intelligence that really just showed what breeds were best at following orders. And countless more cases of bad science over the centuries.

De Waal suggests that we are indeed embarking on a new collective frame of mind when it comes to the gifts of animal cognition.

"Almost every week there is a new finding regarding sophisticated animal cognition, often with compelling videos to back it up," he writes. "We hear that rats may regret their own decisions, that crows manufacture tools, that octopuses recognize human faces, and that special neurons allow monkeys to learn from each other’s mistakes. We speak openly about culture in animals and about their empathy and friendships. Nothing is off limits anymore, not even the rationality that was once considered humanity’s trademark."

In the end, the real test will be to see if we are smart enough to realize we’re not the only smart ones around – and then to act accordingly.

For more, read the book ... you can also watch De Waal in this TED Talk talking about empathy, cooperation and fairness in other species: