March 2012
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The intelligence divide

So most people believe that human intelligence is a different thing than animal intelligence, or if not really different, at least so much greater in amount that the effect is the same. Think of the quote that Stalin either said or didn’t - “a quantitative difference, if it is big enough, has a quality of difference all its own”. This is a sort of dogma: there is no comparison or likeness between animal and human intelligence. We don’t actually agree on how to define or measure it; we cannot clearly explain its neurobiology. So why be so sure that it is unique in its mechanism and/or orders of magnitude larger in humans over others?

In an article in Discovery (here), Changizi does an excellent job of looking at our underestimation of other animals and overestimation of ourselves. It is good, so follow the link if you have time.

First he points out that we are very good at seeing and judging the intelligence of other people but not good at seeing it in animals. This is to be expected considering evolutionary pressures. I was reminded of someone describing an episode that was burnt into their memory. They were on a fast boat in the Med and some dolphins came along side the started playing in and with the bow wave of the boat. One of the dolphins in a jump catch his eye. “Catch his eye”, he went on talking about this for a long time trying to get us listeners to understand the significance. Somehow the dolphin picked him out, knew he was watching the jump, and ‘catch his eye’ to communicate that spark of recognition. That is the sort of experience that we have with other humans but not that often with animals. We underestimate what we have in common with animals because they cannot read them well. We just have trouble seeing an animal as an individual character that thinks and feels.

Next Changizi points out how little is needed biologically to give us our language and culture and therefore we overestimate our own intelligence. Culture harnessed (Harnessed is the name of his book on the subject) what we had for brains in our cultural evolution without there needing to be much change to our biology in the past couple of hundred thousand years. This would indicate that our brains are not very different in basic mechanisms from other vertebrates and especially other mammals. It is the culture that makes the gap. It is interesting to look at dogs and their owners. It would seem that dogs are much better at reading the thoughts, feelings and intentions of their owners then their owners are attuned to their dogs. Does this mean that dogs are better at non-verbal communication than humans? I think not; humans are just a bit lazy or arrogant and could read their dogs better if they cared to. But it does indicate that dogs do not have a different sort of intelligence or a huge different in amount or they would not be so good at reading us.

Changizi’s final paragraph make clear how complex he thinks intelligence is.

Now, I’d hate to give the impression that, because we humans are much less smart than is commonly thought, that building artificial intelligence is on the horizon. The intelligence of all animals - especially birds and mammals - is so deeply complex that I believe we’re centuries, not decades, away.

My intent in knocking ourselves down a peg is not so much to lower us, but to raise our appreciation of the intelligence found in other animals.

Centuries may be an exaggeration.

2 Responses to “The intelligence divide”

  1. Mados says:

    First: I haven’t read the article yet (can’t open the link due to my ### Internet connection) but I find the topic very inspiring and will write my thoughts on it anyway - Hope that is OK.

    Quote: “But it does indicate that dogs do not have a different sort of intelligence or a huge different in amount or they would not be so good at reading us.”

    I think dogs have a very different way of thinking compared to humans. They have evolved to respond to human emotions and intentions due to human selective pressure. Wolves and dingos (even when brought up as dogs) don’t have that ability, although they too have excellent co-operative skills and ability to read body languages. Not just other wolves but other animals’ as well. They need to… predators that hunt like wolves do need to be able to read the emotions and predict the behaviour of prey animals, and since wolves/wild dogs are opportunistic and versatile hunters, they need to learn to read many different kind of animals to be successful.

    Also, a wolf pack’s social structure is almost identical to a typical human family: parents in charge (the alpha couple) and then off springs from various years.

    Still with all these similarities, I don’t think dogs think as much like humans as many humans think… People are projecting and humanising dogs because they are lazy, as you say.

    I also think humans could understand dogs better if they tried. I am quite confident that humans have also evolved under selective pressure to read dogs, at least in many parts of the world, but that is pure speculation: because I can see how massively dogs can improve the efficiency of hunting, herding and protecting families and villages. It would make sense if communities where working dogs were an integrated part of the culture had a higher survival rate & prosperity than communities where they weren’t, prior to modern time.

    As I said, that is pure speculation.

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