16-30 Segment 2: Measuring Animal Intelligence: How smart are they?

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How smart are animals? That’s a question that scientists – and pet owners – have been asking for decades. Our guest is a scientist who has studied animal intelligence and he discusses how neuroscience and biology are coming up with new definitions of what it means to be an intelligent animal, and using medical technology and unique experiments to better understand intelligence in non-humans.
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Guest:

  • Frans de Waal, professor in the psychology department at Emory University in Atlanta, and director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, author of the book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

 

Measuring Animal Intelligence

Marty Peterson: How smart are animals? Is your dog smarter than your cat? Is the parrot that repeats what you say more intelligent than the crow that sits on the electrical wires outside your window? What about monkeys and apes, with their human-like faces and opposable thumbs? Are they really as smart as human toddlers? These are some of the questions being asked by neuroscientists, biologists and psychologists today, among them Frans de Waal, professor in the psychology department at Emory University in Atlanta, and director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes National Primate Research Center there, and author of the book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? He says that we’re beginning to test for animal intelligence differently than we used to — not just compared to what we can do, but according to what the animal needs to do…

Frans de Waal: We plan ahead and we think that’s really special, but we now know that apes plan ahead, and so this whole idea that animals live in the present and that they’re captured in the present, basically, that’s wrong. And I think our own intelligence – we overestimate the difference – our own intelligence is not fundamentally different from the intelligence of animals and it is true that each animal has it’s own way of doing things and the fact will be a big topic in the book is that we need to test animals on the sort of things that they normally need to do. We’re not going to test an octopus on reading and writing; I don’t think we will get very far with that, but we can test an octopus on can it adjust to it’s environment, can it change color, can it adopt certain postures and so on.

Peterson: He says that observing animals in nature is fine to get an idea of their behavior in their natural habitat. However, if you want to test them for intelligence, the laboratory – where conditions are controlled and experiments can be done over and over again — is the best place…

de Waal: Studying primates in the field is wonderful, and I think we need data on how chimpanzees or bonobos live in the wild and what they do with their intelligence and how they solve their problems, but if we really want to get their capacities, we need to bring them into a captive environment and do a controlled experiment; that’s what it’s called. For example you can set up experiments on how they share food or how they use tools, how they learn from each other and so on, and so the captive setting is necessary to get really into details of their capacities.

Peterson: De Waal says that today’s scientists have devised sophisticated experiments that test an animal’s creativity by having them coax food out of some very difficult spaces…

de Waal: The crow is very smart because the crow also makes tools. Now, using tools is one thing but fabricating a tool is something else. So, in the wild these New Caledonian crows, they mummify twigs to make them suitable to extract grubs and things like that, and in captivity there’s an experiment where they gave Betty the crow a straight piece of wire which she was supposed to use to fish something out of a vertical tube, and she was unable to do that. And then she took this straight piece of wire and she started bending it and bending it until she had made a hook out of it, and then she could extract the stuff from the pipe and so she was making a tool. Now, making a tool – that requires a level of understanding that most animals don’t have. Some crows have that, certainly chimpanzees have that, but there’s not many animals that can make tools and make them suitable for the task.

Peterson: Apes are also pretty clever in figuring out ways to get food from narrow containers in the lab…

de Waal: You put a vertical tube, you put a peanut at the bottom and that’s all there is. Of course, the firs thing the ape will do is try to reach with his fingers or start shaking the tube, but nothing works. And then some of them, not all of them, but the smart ones, let’s say, they go to the water faucet and they suck up a lot of water and they bring it to the tube and they spit it in there and sometimes they have to go four or five times to the faucet to get enough water to float up the peanut so the peanut floats on the water, of course, and then they can reach it.

Peterson: De Waal says that this kind of task involves using imagination – something that not many animals are capable of. But as he said, not all apes are capable of this kind of thinking, so there’s a range of intelligence within breeds too, but scientists have to be careful how they test for it. For example, every year there’s a list that comes out of the “smartest dog breeds.” de Waal says that this ranking of intelligence in dogs is misleading because it’s not looking at the right attributes to gauge smartness…

de Waal: At the top of the list, it was the border collie and at the bottom of the list was the Afghan dog. I had some friends who had the last type of dog and they were very upset by the list. They felt that their dog was just as smart as any other, but Afghans are apparently very stubborn and a bit like cats; they don’t want to do what you tell them to do. And they said it’s a list of obedience, it’s not a list of intelligence, and it’s true. We humans look at dogs as smarter than cats because dogs will follow orders and cats won’t – although you could also turn it around; not following orders is maybe a very smart thing to do, but people, they’re very egoeccentric, and so we’re very obsessed with what animals can do for us, and that’s how we judge them. And, of course, there’s lots of animals who don’t follow orders and we don’t consider them that intelligent.

Peterson: Many people like to think that their pets are smart, but de Waal says that people don’t want them to be too intelligent. He tells the story of a “tea party” at the London Zoo during the last century …

de Waal: They would dress up their apes and put them behind a table and have them eat or drink tea or whatever. It’s of course totally ridiculous because you get this sort of humanized impression of the apes, and the thing in London was the apes got too good at it, so they would be sitting around the table and they would be drinking tea and they would do everything perfectly. This became threatening to the human audience because, of course, for the Brits drinking tea is like this peak of civilization and so they felt very uncomfortable that these apes were doing it just as well as they were doing it. And that’s what Morris told me, that the apes had to be retrained. So they retrained the apes to make all sorts of errors: to spill the tea around, to dunk the cups in the pot, to make each other wet with tea. And they did all sorts of naughty things, and all of the sudden the public loved it because those were the apes that they had expected to see – the naughty apes. And that’s a reflection on human ego is that our ego does not tolerate that apes are just as good at certain things as we are.

Peterson: Many animals are not only intelligent and trainable to act like humans, de Waal says that they also feel empathy toward one another – a very human trait that seems inborn. He tells the story of a young rhesus monkey who was born with a condition similar to Down Syndrome in humans…

de Waal: Her name was Azalea. She would threaten the alpha male for trouble, which really, in a rhesus monkey society, is the wrong thing to do, and normally a juvenile would get punished for that, so it was actually quite dangerous, but they never punished Azalea. I was always surprised how tolerant everyone was. So, a rhesus monkey society is very hierarchical and very strict, but she was an exception; she could do whatever she wanted to do and the monkeys ignored her more or less. She lived about three years, so I had the time to see all of that. She was quite well accepted. There’s a few other cases of primates that have mental problems or physical problems, and physical handicapped is also interesting actually. In the field, there’s some reports of wild chimpanzees and wild bonobos where others slow down the movement when one of them is handicapped where, let’s say, a young male starts to carry the baby of a female who’s injured to help her out, basically. And so those kinds of actions are being observed in the field.

Peterson: This kind of behavior has also been observed in cattle, rodents, dogs, elephants and other animals, so it’s not that unusual. Neither is face recognition – another ability that we think of as solely a “human skill.” De Waal says that in the past, chimpanzees were tested on human face recognition and didn’t do very well…

de Waal: It’s only when I started doing research where we tested chimpanzees on recognizing chimpanzee faces that all of the sudden they were just as good as humans were. Once we knew chimpanzees recognized faces and then later came the monkeys – chimpanzees are not monkeys. Chimpanzees are not monkeys; chimpanzees are apes, and so once we had the apes doing it and then we had the monkeys doing it, there were people who discovered face recognition in sheep even. So sheep are very good at recognizing each others’ faces, and now we know from neuroscience that actually the same area in the brain is involved in when monkeys recognize faces and when we recognize faces. So that gives a very strong indication that we do it in the same way, that there’s really not a difference in the way we do these things and the monkeys do these things, as you would expect, but all these things have to be proven by neuroscience. And I think that’s what’s going to happen in the next 25 years; the neuroscientists are going to get involved in this kind of thing.

Peterson: De Waal says that, biologically speaking, humans are animals and human intelligence is just a version of animal intelligence. In fact, he says that there’s no fundamental difference between human brains and monkey brains except for size. In the next 25 years he sees neuroscience taking a bigger role in studying these animals and perhaps finding that we are not so different from them after all…

de Waal: If you look at it that way then we have been on he wrong track looking at human intelligence because a lot of studies of humans’ mental capacities is on how special we are and how different we are and actually most of that is not true. It’s been proven over the last fifty years that most of the claims of how unique we are have sort of been dropped because they were not tenable.

Peterson: You can read all about studies on animal intelligence in species from insects to dolphins to primates in Frans de Waal’s book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are, available now in stores and online. You can also visit him on Facebook at Frans de Waal public page. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Ronnie Szudarski and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.

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