Humans Have Been Underestimating Animal Intelligence Basically Forever
We humans have lived our lives for centuries secure in the notion that we’re the smartest creatures on the planet. We can do things no other animal can. We can reason. We’re number one — top of the ladder. Of course we’re the best and the brightest. Right?
Hold on there, Einstein. It turns out we’ve been thinking way too much of ourselves all these years and have given incredibly short shrift to the intelligence of the animals we share the Earth with.
Experts with Australia’s University of Adelaide say that animals exhibit myriad forms of intelligence that are every bit as impressive as ours.
“For millennia, all kinds of authorities — from religion to eminent scholars — have been repeating the same idea ad nauseam, that humans are exceptional by virtue that they are the smartest in the animal kingdom,” said Dr. Arthur Saniotis, Visiting Research Fellow with the University of Adelaide’s School of Medical Sciences.
“However, science tells us that animals can have cognitive faculties that are superior to human beings,” he said.
Religious Views and the Mastery of Agriculture Made Humans a Little Cocky
Humans began to think of themselves as being the most intelligent and accomplished species more than 10,000 years ago, according to Dr. Saniotis. As organized religion came into its own, it naturally supported the human-centric view that we were obviously the preeminent species on Earth.
With the advent of the Agricultural Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, we learned to domesticate animals and grow crops to feed ourselves. Because we could bend animals and plants to our will, we decided we were much smarter than any other creature. Reality, however, paints a very different picture.
“The fact that [animals] may not understand us, while we do not understand them, does not mean our ‘intelligences’ are at different levels, they are just of different kinds,” said Professor Maciej Henneberg. “When a foreigner tries to communicate with us using an imperfect, broken version of our language, our impression is that they are not very intelligent. But the reality is quite different.”
According to Prof. Henneberg, humans are so focused on language and technology, we’re completely missing the fact that there are other equally important types of intelligence. Among them, he says are types at which that animals excel — for example, kinaesthetic and social intelligence.
Animal Intelligence Enables Them Do Amazing Things We Never Could
Kinaesthetic intelligence is the ability to manipulate objects and employ physical skills. Among humans, this type of intelligence is best displayed by dancers, athletes, performers and surgeons. Animals possess this type of intelligence and demonstrate it in astounding ways. Examples include animals such as apes, otters and even birds that learn how to use tools like rocks to break open food sources.
Social intelligence involves processing information and applying it in a social context. Animals can do this constantly in ways that may surprise you. For example, research shows that when lemurs live in a larger group rather than a smaller one, they demonstrate more social tact. They don’t steal food from others in the larger group context, though they might in a smaller unit. They understand which behavior is acceptable in which context, and they abide by those rules.
“Some mammals, like gibbons, can produce a large number of varied sounds — over 20 different sounds with clearly different meanings that allow these arboreal primates to communicate across tropical forest canopy. The fact that they do not build houses is irrelevant to the gibbons,” Prof. Henneberg said.
In addition, the messages animals leave for others to smell are likely much more nuanced that we realize.
“Many quadrupeds leave complex olfactory marks in their environment, and some, like koalas, have special pectoral glands for scent marking,” Henneberg added. ”Humans, with their limited sense of smell, can’t even gauge the complexity of messages contained in olfactory markings, which may be as rich in information as the visual world.”
Time to Give Respect Where it‘s Due
Think about that. Your dog often marks his territory outside. What’s he saying to all those other neighborhood dogs that will be passing by? It’s likely a whole lot deeper than “Hi, I’m Spot. This is my tree.”
In fact, your dog or cat probably has you wrapped around its little finger, figuratively speaking. As Dr. Henneberg notes, our pets “can even communicate to us their demands and make us do things they want. The animal world is much more complex than we give it credit for.”
It’s time to give animals their due. They may not speak our language, travel in vehicles, read books or use computers, but so what? They have awesome talents of their own that we can never hope to achieve.
Perhaps a bit more mutual respect between us and our animal friends is in order. Perhaps it’s time to stop eating them, wearing them and making them perform for our amusement. Let’s acknowledge that we share this world with creatures both diverse and intelligent, and try harder to live in harmony with them all.
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