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 its 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.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


christine s
christine sabout a year ago

Terrifying what we do to these poor intelligent animals ---it's a sickening thought .

Olga Nycz-Shirley
Olga Nycz-Shirelyabout a year ago

Love this article. Thanks.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Ian Brown
Ian Brown5 years ago

"Humans are exceptional by virtue that they are the smartest in the animal kingdom” - I find that hard to believe when you see the things that some of us do!

Cathryn Wellner
Cathryn Wellner5 years ago

I love this article! So good to see animals receiving the recognition they deserve. Now let's give them the respect they deserve.

Angela J.
Angela J5 years ago

What a great article!

Latonya W.
Latonya W5 years ago

WONDERFUL ARTICLE and oh how I love the title.Respect due to my animals would not mind living with them versus humans anyday:)

Nora McKellar
Nora McKellar5 years ago

the last statement in this article couldn't be more true!!

we can't keep using our abilities as a measure of other animals intelligence, i would be like comparing a new born to an adult, its not a fair test. there are a lot of things humans are capable of doing that animals can't but there just as many things animals are capable of doing that humans can't. our abilities vary from species to species it doesn't mean one is smarter than the other!

Jeanne Young
Jeanne Young5 years ago

For decades, now, I have looked at the animals to be seen around me with the constant recurring thought - "I KNOW you think - I just don't often know WHAT you think"
Humankind could (if we only would) learn a LOT from the social behaviors of the other living things on the planet - - -
IF we would only let them live - - -