Smart reptiles watch: So much for the dumb, unfeeling “reptilian brain.”

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This NOVA program looks interesting.

They look like dragons and inspire visions of fire-spitting monsters. But these creatures with their long claws, razor-sharp teeth, and muscular, whip-like tails are actually monitors, the largest lizards now walking the planet. With their acute intelligence, these lizards—including the largest of all, the Komodo dragon—are a very different kind of reptile, blurring the line between reptiles and mammals. Thriving on Earth essentially unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs, they are a very successful species, versatile at adapting to all kinds of settings. This program looks at what makes these long-tongued reptiles so similar to mammals and what has allowed them to become such unique survivors.

I have never been a fan of the “reptilian brain” approach to intelligence – in other words that reptiles are always dumber than mammals because of some nonsense about the evolution of the brain.

I am told that crocodilians, including the Mississippi alligator and cobras are also smart enough. Lots of people have ended up in the hospital or the morgue by assuming that that wasn’t true.

14 Replies to “Smart reptiles watch: So much for the dumb, unfeeling “reptilian brain.”

  1. 1
    Petrushka says:

    Do you suppose that reptiles’ minds are separate from their brains, the way people’s are?

  2. 2
    Petrushka says:

    When I see that in print it looks like it might be a snide comment, but it’s intended as a sincere question.

    When I see the assertion that human minds are separate from their brains, I am curious if that has implications for other animals.
    Do cats and dogs and monkeys have a sense of self? Do they feel pain and other significant emotions?

  3. 3
    Scruffy says:

    I wouldn’t necessarily say the human mind is completely separate from the brain. It’s rather obvious that it’s not. But it’s also not a clear cut answer such as “the brain produces the mind, the brain is in control, etc”

    From our observations it seems that both have the capability of influencing each other. There have been studies done where certain types of thinking literally shape the folds of the brain, regardless of age. We can also see that with people who suffer from mental disorders, brain chemicals are off balance and such, their mind is not what the majority consider to be “normal”.

    What comes out of their mouths makes no sense, is completely illogical, baseless, and so on. What comes out of the mouth is a product, more often than not, of your thoughts. In these types of cases we have an example of the brain influencing the mind.

    From what I’ve seen and I think many would agree, animals such as dogs and cats have a clear sense of self and a giant library of emotions extremely similar to humans. This is one reason so many people connect with their pets to a point where they’re no longer “just a dog”, they’re like a child, sibling, or best friend. Monkeys and many other mammals are probably in a similar boat.

    When it comes to reptiles, I can personally say that they do seem to also have their own sense of self, their own personalities if you will. For instance, I use to own two iguanas, a male and a female. The male was usually layback but the female was rather… “high strung” if you will. She constantly tried to whip me with her tail, even if I wasn’t bothering her and she always managed to get out of the cage and climb onto the high shelf in our closest and stay in the same corner where a giant comforter usually was. It was a pain in the rear trying to get her back into the cage because she loved to whip the sh*t out of you with that tail of hers.

    Birds are another animal that seem to have a much deeper awareness of the living creatures around them.

  4. 4
    Barb says:

    Petruscka at 1&2 – Interesting that you bring this point up, since in my ethics class now we’re discussing animal rights. Animals can, of course, feel pain; this is why animal rights activists attempt to free them from labs where medical research is being done.

    Animals cannot, however, plan for the future or contemplate it; they cannot appreciate art and beauty in the same manner as humans do; and they cannot reason as humans do.

  5. 5
    O'Leary says:

    Petrushka, at 1: I don’t know. I can only advise staying well away from an angry reptilian cow, of the sort which are big and have lots of teeth and huge jaws *and protect their eggs.* Whatever may be on her mind/brain, if she thinks you are a problem, you have a problem.

    Petrushka at 2: About cats and dogs (possibly monkeys*), the question seems more complex to me, because they owe so much to their relationship with humans.

    Once, in midwinter, when I was carrying a big basket of laundry from a local laundromat, a cat suddenly ran up and jumped in. I knew perfectly well that he did not just want the warmth he sensed from the basket, fresh from the dryer; he wanted to be adopted.

    I tried feeding him and putting him outside, but then he started wailing outside the back door, and it was midwinter, after all … So I adopted him. He was so thin that the vet said he must be only 3 months old, but I fattened him up some, and on his next visit, only 30 days later, the vet said he was more like 6 months old.

    Now here is my key question: No raccoon or skunk I ever met would have done what that cat did. I think a lot of work is needed to sort some of this stuff out.

    * Monkeys: Most people don’t keep them here because they are very subject to colds, so I cannot address that question. (That cat actually helped me catch someone’s escaped pet monkey. Story for another day.)

    Scruffy at 3: No question that the brain influences the mind. I am currently dealing with an aged senior who deals with just that problem.

    (Short term memory shorted out due to stroke; must be rebuilt. Long term memory fine. Indeed, the person started to tell me things, on my many visits, that I had never heard before, but are beyond reasonable doubt true – because they match up with known historical events and others’ reminiscences pretty accurately. And this person was not important enough to have anything to account for or excuses to make.) It was this experience that convinced me that the mind and the brain are separate, but interlinked.

    Your sadistic reptile sounds charming, if one does not need to live with her. I presume you have experienced an amicable divorce.

  6. 6
    zeroseven says:


    How do you know that other animals don’t plan for the future? Isn’t a bird flying south planning for the future by placing itself in a warmer environment before it gets too cold?

  7. 7
    O'Leary says:

    zeroseven at 6, and Barb, birds have the problem that, in the fall, their food supplies start to diminish. At least where I live.

    It would be natural for many species to simply start migrating south because they know from experience that the hard times come later there – if they come at all.

    Hence, the Canada goose can be someone else’s lawn-devouring pest for a while. No one loves lawns like a Canaada goose.

    Personally, I think the planning was done for them beforehand, and they merely co-operate with it, hence they live.

  8. 8
    avocationist says:

    There seems to be a real difference between domesticated animals and wild ones. Wolves and zebras cannot be truly domesticated. But it also may be that this stray kitten had originated in a home with people.

    I am pretty sure animals do plan for the future, at least the short term future. An experienced stallion has the job of leading the pack and makes various rational decisions based upon needs at the time. If he leads in a direction, he knows where he is going and why.

    My cat caught a chipmunk out in the parking lot, and carefully brought it to her kittens in good condition and plopped it in front of them, to arouse in them the desire to chase it. So there must have arisen in her mind some kind of thought that this chipmunk would make a good learning opportunity.

    Even crocodiles take a fresh kill and moore it in some reeds to ripen so they can eat it later.

  9. 9
    Drew Mazanec says:

    I know that JP Moreland, a substance dualist, does believe in the existence of animal souls.

  10. 10
    HouseStreetRoom says:


    Interestingly, VJTorley wrote his thesis on that very subject. I highly recommend giving it a read: the minimal mind.


  11. 11
    O'Leary says:

    I am sure avocationist at 8 is right. That cat had got separated from a previous home, and was looking for another one. The laundry basket was warm, but – more important – the human was not unfriendly.

    I have dealt with feral, semi-feral, and wild kittens, and they are just not the same. They run, the way a squirrel would, or else bite and scratch; they will accept food thrown to them, but do not seek a relationship.

    The tame cat is looking for a cat bed beside the radiator (or opposite the fan), a food bowl, a water bowl (and a convenience, of course). When I was writing my share of The Spiritual Brain, my old cat Hamlet (a much later cat) was parked between my back and the radiator practically the whole time.

    Drew Mazanec at 9: I don’t know what to think about animal souls. It is possible that animals that participate in human life develop souls that survive death. But I know of no official belief on the subject.

    HouseStreetRoom 10: I shall read the thesis with interest.

  12. 12
    Petrushka says:

    Interestingly, VJTorley wrote his thesis on that very subject. I highly recommend giving it a read: the minimal mind

    Interesting. But if a mimimal agency capable of operant learning can be said to have a mind, then evolution would qualify.

  13. 13
    Scruffy says:

    O’Leary @ 5: I too am dealing with someone with mental issues (we’re thinking bipolar) and I must say it’s so obvious that when everything in the brain isn’t just right, the mind sees another reality.

    I separated from my physically abusive iguana over 10 years ago, can’t say I really regret it haha.

    Petrushka @ 12: Could you explain exactly how evolution would qualify?

  14. 14
    Petrushka says:

    Petrushka @ 12: Could you explain exactly how evolution would qualify?

    My statement is based on the discussion of operant learning in the thesis:


    Operant learning is the increase in probability of behavior as a result of consequenses.

    Evolution is the increase in frequency of alleles as a result of consequenses.

    They are comparable phenomena because change is produced by consequenses.

    In other words, both are instances of systems that learn.

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