As the smartest species on the planet (at least by our own definition), we can’t help but be captivated by the subject of non-human intelligence. Is there alien intelligence out in the stars or are we intellectually alone? Are there different ways of being intelligent or are most things simply higher or lower on the same universal scale? What is it that makes our way of thinking different from another animals, or are we closer to them than we think? And of course, the question on everyone’s mind, which are smarter, cats or dogs?
Evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare has been studying animal cognition for years. He’s looked at some of the smartest non-human species over the span of his career, and has a lot to say on the subject. In his new book, he touches on some of the usual suspects for Earth’s number two title. There are a number of animals that can learn to respond to spoken commands, and even reply with a limited vocabulary. Do a search for sign-language and gorilla or chimpanzee and you’ll turn up many famous examples — Koko, Washoe, and Noam Chimpsky among them.
Dolphins, too, have displayed the ability to understand complex verbal commands, and even written symbols. Parrots were previously considered great mimics with no understanding of what they are saying, until Alex, an African Grey, stunned the world with his ability to hold actual spoken conversations. (The memoir his research colleague wrote is one of my wife’s favourite books.)
And I’ve always been intrigued by the dark horse candidate: octopi (and squid and cuttlefish). It would be fascinating if the second smartest species turned out not only to be a non-primate, but a non-vertebrate.
Even dog-lovers don’t usually consider their canine family members for this title, however. Sure, they’re sweet and loyal and wonderful, but geniuses? Hare’s book, The Genius of Dogs, suggests they may be. Based on his own work at the Duke Canine Cognition Center, and drawing on animal intelligence studies across the field, Hare has found some convincing evidence that the wheels are really churning behind those puppy dog eyes.
It’s true that domestic animals tend to be less intelligent than their wild counterparts. Selection for docility by human breeders may have had the side-effect of turning honed survival machines, like the majestic wild auroch, into dumb, helpless cattle. Hare tells us that dogs, however, are a counter-point to that trend. Trained to be our partners and companions, rather than a food source, dogs increased their intelligence to fill that role, developing human-like thinking wild wolves never possessed.
Studies have shown that dogs understand human gestures and facial expressions better than any other species, blowing away our own primate cousins. Those of us with dogs have long understood how deeply attuned they are to our emotions, possessing a human-like empathy unmatched throughout the animal kingdom.
But, as Hare explains, they’re also capable of feats of human-like reasoning. For example, being asked to retrieve an object with a name they’ve never been taught, dogs will infer that the one they’ve never seen before is the one required. In another study, being told by a pointing human where food is being hidden, dogs have been shown to file away that information until they have the opportunity to retrieve it, combining their great memory and understanding of human gestures with an ability to plan ahead.
This is the unique genius of dogs, to have lain by our feet and learned our ways, matching the intelligence, by some estimates, of a small child. With a great memory, problem-solving ability and human-like language skills, what you really want to know, though, is are they smarter than cats?
Hare says yes, but with qualifications. The real secret to intelligence is that all animals are very good at certain things they’ve evolved to do. Rats are the best at running mazes, for example, which makes sense when you consider that they avoid open spaces. Dogs have evolved to be our companions, which is why they’ve developed a communicative and social intelligence that few animals, wild or tame, can match. In other words, they’re exactly as smart as they need to be for the role they play.
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