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What we know about how animals think

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Here are links to O’Leary for News posts on what research tells us about animal minds. This page is a work in progress; feel free to check back or leave comments.

1. First, there is no fixed “tree” or “scale” of animal intelligence. See, for example,

Science-Fictions-square.gif Matching Darwin’s “Tree of Life,” the “Tree of Intelligence” comes crashing down (2014 12 08)

It is true that chimps can learn to spring simple snare traps that are set for them without getting hurt. But does that really put them on a continuum with humans? They do not do nearly as well as human toddlers on an abstract reasoning test.

Not only is there a vast gulf between human and chimpanzee intelligence but chimpanzees are not alone on the other side. For example, dogs perform better on one kind of intelligence test than chimpanzees: Dogs can understand finger pointing where chimps cannot. That’s remarkable when you consider that dogs do not have fingers but chimps do. Is one permitted to wonder why, if chimpanzees have the active mental life that some researchers claim, they are still swinging in the trees?

In intelligence, researchers say, crows are “feathered primates.” And New Zealand crows get smarter by the study. Some claim that their causal understanding (within limits) rivals that of 5-7 year old children. Or 7- to 10-year-old children. But then, even the intelligence of the chicken “startles,” according to Scientific American (“communication skills on par with those of some primates”). The chicken?

Pigeons’ performance with numbers up to nine is “indistinguishable from that displayed by monkeys.” New Caledonian crows can use three tools in succession to reach food, and can also enact Aesop’s fable by dropping stones into a jar of water till floating food rises.

But here is another problem as well: Only some birds are especially intelligent. What factors determine whether a given bird is a raven or a dodo? Puzzles that arise from the evidence are not usually elaborated. The chimpanzee’s intelligence is thought to derive from having a brain similar to a human one, due to common descent. Yet if a bird’s differently structured brain can achieve the same level of individual intelligence, then intelligence may be something other than we now conceive it to be.

And then there are the reptiles. Crocodiles use tools, as do birds. More.

And then there are smarter fish too.

Yes, there are rough, general trends in intelligence, just as there are rough, general trends in evolution. But the devil is in the details, not the generalities.

Human intelligence is orders of magnitude greater than any other, and different in type. We have no satisfactory account of that; we have many failed attempts.

So it might be better to set aside human intelligence when discussing animal intelligence. We’d get further.

The alternative is to continue to somehow “map” animal intelligence onto human intelligence (anthropomorphism) or to map human intelligence onto animal intelligence (naturalism). That makes about as much sense as trying to map an extraterrestrial mountain onto Earth.
Sure, now and then we will find something that sort of works. But the idea is basically wrong so—rather than adding information—it creates a territory we must defend.

We can’t do worse by trying another tack.

Summary: Now that we know more about how animals think, we face two key conundrums: There is no scale or orderly pattern for intelligence. Chimpanzees are considered intelligence stars, on a scale with humans. But on some tests, dogs perform better. For that matter, crows (“feathered primates”) outperform children 5 through 7. Pigeons count numbers up to 9 as well as monkeys. Some species of reptiles and fish, and some invertebrates show considerable intelligence—but only some. And we don’t know what accounts for their greater intelligence. Second, human intelligence is, in reality, orders of magnitude greater than that of any other life form on the planet. So the attempt to account for human intelligence by studying animal intelligence may handicap us in dealing with both. 

2. If there is no scale, to what extent is common ancestry a useful guide to intelligence? How good an impression, for example, do apes do of people?

  Salvo 21: The greater ape project

The multidisciplinary project of demonstrating that the human mind is conceptual clutter in the repertoire of science can be pursued from many angles. One of them is the attempt to show that chimpanzees act just like people. Science media these days feature no end of stories about the erasure of boundaries, both intellectual and moral, between chimps and humans.

Okay, some facts: It is true that chimps can learn to spring simple snare traps that are set for them without getting hurt. But does that really put them on a continuum with humans? One recalls Nim Chimpsky, of 1970s fame, the chimp who was raised from infancy as a human baby and even breastfed. The daughter of the surrogate mother explained in retrospect, “It was the seventies.” It was indeed, and celebrity “skeptic” Carl Sagan was confident even in the nineties that a chimpanzee would, with assistance, write a memoir arising from such an experiment. (Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Nature of Human Intelligence, New York: Random House, 1977, p. 126.)

What happened? The experimenters hit a brick wall with Nim: “The language didn’t materialize.” Conjuring in Darwin’s name does not erase a brick wall.

Not only is the boundary wall still brick, but the chimps are not alone on the other side. Dogs perform better on one kind of intelligence test than chimpanzees: “The task was to retrieve the object the experimenter wanted. To indicate which one she desired, the experimenter pointed imperatively to it and directly rewarded the subject for handing over the correct one.” In other words, dogs could understand finger pointing but chimps could not. Even though dogs do not have fingers but chimps do.

For that matter, grey parrots and ravens have been shown to solve puzzles that were formerly reserved for primates. Does that make them closer to humans than other birds are? As close as chimps are? If not, what is the point of studies that attempt to trace the evolution of human abilities by studying those of chimps? The possibility of independent origin of the tested types of intelligence is clearly demonstrated by clever birds, separated from us in evolution by hundreds of millions of years, or so we are told.

It is also true that chimps sometimes share food or “tools.” The researchers’ usual point, of course, is not that chimps behave communally but that their behavior demonstrates how “it could have come about in our own lineage.” But one study grudgingly reports, “Humans actively share resources with one another to a much greater degree than do other great apes, and much human sharing is governed by social norms of fairness and equityn” Don’t we just know what the next target will be: Demonstrate (that is, conjure) evidence that chimpanzees also exhibit such social norms.

“Wall, I order you, in Darwin’s name, to crumble!”

We are already asked to suppose that there are chimpanzee “police,” though “more data are needed to test the generality of this hypothesis.” The authors of that study stop short of identifying their claimed observations as the ultimate origin of the FBI and Interpol.

“Wall … “

The obvious question raised by the current research emphasis is so large that we tend to miss it (as an alternative to going mad?): If chimpanzees have the active mental life that researchers claim, why are they still screeching in the trees? No one offers to answer that question because, once asked, it breaks the spell for good.

Some might wonder, do these fuzzy animal stories really do any actual harm? Well, when atheist Patrick Green of Athens, Texas, was suing over the county nativity scene, he developed a serious eye condition. The kindness of local Christians prompted him to become one himself. He commented “There’s been one lingering thought in the back of my head my entire life, and it’s one thought that I’ve never been able to reconcile, and that is the vast difference between all the animals and us.” For him, that was part of the solution; for others, it is an ongoing problem.

Summary: Assumed common ancestry makes the lack of a neat, graduated progression in intelligence from amoebas to humans a puzzle, at least in the short term: If there is no clear cut relationship between intelligence and genetics, what creates and mediates intelligence? Attempts to narrow the huge gap between chimp intelligence and unaccounted-for human intelligence have not been very successful. But if they were, they would simply move the problem from one basket to another. If chimps could clearly demonstrate significant intellectual accomplishments, why does their native state remain that of a non-rational animal? 

3. What are we to make of the fact that intelligence varies considerably among genera and even species of orders such as mammals, birds, and reptiles. What drives the increase in intelligence of one species rather than another?

Salvo 22: When Darwin’s tree of life crashed, it brought down the tree of intelligence too

In Salvo 21, we looked at ongoing efforts to demonstrate a simple continuum between the intelligence of humans and primate apes. Never mind that the latter, after all this time, are still screeching in the trees and show no signs of changing their lifestyle. In any event, it turns out that grey parrots and ravens can solve puzzles that we had assumed only such primates could manage. Which raises the question, does that make these birds closer to humans than other birds are? Not genetically, surely.

We may need to rethink what intelligence is and how it is acquired.

Put another way: Suppose all mammals were clearly more intelligent than all other vertebrates, all primates were more intelligent than all other mammals, and humans were more intelligent than chimpanzees—but only on a continuum (rather than abruptly, by several orders of magnitude). The resulting picture supports a simple, materialist view of the human mind as the eventual outcome of the random evolution of the vertebrate brain.

The actual picture is messier. Contrary to a decades-long assumption in science, we are now told that “the avian pallium [grey matter] supports cognitive abilities similar to, and for some species more advanced than, those of many mammals.” For example, one parrot, Avisa, showed a reasoning skill for finding food that “So far, only great apes have been shown to master … ‘inference by exclusion.’”

Pigeons’ performance with numbers up to nine is “indistinguishable from that displayed by monkeys.” New Caledonian crows can use three tools in succession to reach food, and can also enact Aesop’s fable by dropping stones into a jar of water till floating food rises.

Rooks can also use objects as tools, but they have so far been observed to do this only in the lab. That raises an interesting question: “Aesop’s crows” got a guided tutorial from humans on dropping stones in water. So is the bird’s achievement the result of interaction with humans, like a cockatoo’s feat of riding a tiny bicycle across a tightrope at an amusement park? Or are smart birds also smart when we are not around?

It turns out, wild birds can be clever too. In the wild, “Aesop’s crows” use sticks as tools for many purposes. Wild ravens have been found to use their beaks like hands, showing and offering objects like moss, stones, and twigs, usually to a raven of the opposite sex. Sometimes the two manipulate the object jointly. The researchers note, until now, “Pointing and holding up objects in order to attract attention has so far only been observed in humans and our closest living relatives, the great apes.”

Puzzles that arise from these findings are not usually elaborated. The chimpanzee’s intelligence is thought to derive from a brain similar to a human one, due to common descent. If a bird’s differently structured brain can achieve the same level of individual intelligence, then intelligence may be something other than we now conceive it to be.

Second, only some birds are especially intelligent. What factors determine whether a bird is a raven or a dodo? And what do we do with the recent finding that a species of anole lizard has tested out as smart as a species of smart birds used in animal intelligence studies (tits). Not a bad show for the legendarily dim reptilian brain. However, the low-metabolism anoles required only one grub a day each. They didn’t need to work very often, which slowed down the research. However, they proved smart enough when they did need to work.

The obsessive search for a continuum between humans and chimpanzees effaces a profound and interesting search for the drivers of animal intelligence. If we ever risk it, it may be very interesting. But it won’t be Darwin.

Summary: There are rough, general trends in intelligence, just as there are in evolution. The problem with general trends, however, is that we can’t easily use them to derive laws. They may be helpful in deriving a pattern, however, if we have a large enough number of examples. Can we say, for example, that intelligence requires a multicellular life form that has a brain?

4. Can life forms show apparent intelligence without brains? Sometimes.

Salvo 24: Sublime Mold Does Intelligence Always Reside in the Brain? Maybe Not!

First, at Salvo 21 above, we saw that there is no clearly demarcated tree of intelligence by which chimpanzees, as primates, are in all respects more intelligent than lower mammals, like dogs. (In some tests, chimps are no smarter than birds and less so than dogs.)

From Salvo 22: Nor is it true that all mammals are smarter than all birds and reptiles. (Clever birds use different brain areas than mammals for the same functions. And some reptiles display mammal-like intelligence.)

From Salvo 23: It isn’t even true that invertebrates are necessarily less intelligent than vertebrates. (Some cephalopods are very clever.) Unfortunately, not much research has been done to discover how or why some species of an animal order or phylum develop much more intelligence than others.

A confounding factor is that humans are more intelligent by many orders of magnitude. Including us in the picture, on the theory that humans are simply evolved animals, leads to useless projects like suggesting that apes might have police 1 or that elephants originate art. The theory requires that human qualities must exist in a less developed form in other species.

But even a naturalist atheist could question that assumption, if he chose. In a universe that itself has a beginning and a predicted end, and on an earth that now hosts life but once did not, some qualities can be genuinely new. So let us set humans aside and continue to look at signs of intelligence in other creatures on their own terms.

Slime Mold: The Brainless Wonder

Apparent intelligence can exist without a brain. Consider Dictyostelium discoides, one of the 900 species known as slime mold. Don’t let the disgusting name deter you; the example is informative. Faced with a food shortage, thousands of brainless, one-celled amoebas living underground hurry to form a single blob. The blob lengthens to about 1/25 of an inch (or one millimeter) and resembles a tiny slug. Then the “slug” crawls toward light, like a worm, and thus arrives at the soil surface.

Different amoebas play different roles inside the blob/slug. Some enable it to move. One percent behave like police: they crawl around looking for infectious bacteria. If they find one, they ingest it and leave the blob. They die, but the slug survives.

Once above ground, the slug reorganizes itself into something more like a fungus. Some of the amoebas form a stiff stalk, while others make their way to the top and become a sticky ball. They then attach the whole slime mold to an animal’s foot. Having secured a means of transportation, they drop off where a food source is found. Then they all disperse as one-celled creatures again.

Humans have hardly organized themselves better during a food crisis than these agglomerates do. Some slime mold species duplicate the effects of sophisticated intelligence. Recently, a Canadian researcher, using a map of Canada and some cereal,

demonstrated that slime mold is fantastically efficient at finding the quickest route to food. When he placed rolled oats over the country’s population centers [on the map] and a slime mold culture over Toronto, the organism grew its way across the Canadian map, sprouting tentacles that mimicked the Canadian highway system. It’s an experiment that’s been replicated globally several times now—in Japan, the UK, and the United States—all with a similar outcome.

No Light from Darwinism

Does the brainless mold demonstrate intelligent design? Hard to say, because researchers must forget the Darwinian controversies in order to even think clearly about the subject. And there are career penalties for that.

Darwin’s followers argue that natural selection acts on random mutations in an individual, resulting in the survival of the fittest. But the slime mold is not really an individual, and the members who sacrifice themselves for the blob gain nothing. Also, the “random” mutations would have to have occurred in huge numbers of amoebas at once, in order to generate such complex behavior. Today, Darwinism sheds no light on nature; it merely offers far-fetched interpretations consistent with its dogma.

Some wonder whether information theory sheds any light on intelligence. The Canadian slime mold researcher, computer scientist Selim Akl, argues, for example, that “nature computes.” If so, there is an intelligence in nature that need not reside in individual life forms—whether or not we call it an intelligent designer.

Summary: Animal intelligence may not require a brain. Faced with a food shortage, thousands of brainless, one-celled, subsurface amoebas form a one millimeter slug that surfaces and organizes itself into a a multicellular organism, somewhat like a fungus in appearance, hitching a ride on an animal perhaps, until food is found. Then all the amoebas disperse again. But how does the intelligence to act in this way arise in the amoebas? Where is it stored when not needed? The amoebas do not need to be a multicellular body but they needed to form one for certain advanced functions? These odd outliers may point us to more focused and realistic research questions.

5. What assumptions should guide us in understanding intelligence?

 Salvo 23: Getting Smarts: Intelligence Is Today’s Unknown Country
In recent issues (Salvo 21 and 22), we looked at animal intelligence among primates, birds, and reptiles. We found that the claims for chimpanzee intelligence were overrated and that, on some tests, birds or dogs do as well as or better than chimps.

One outcome of the current sanctified status of the chimpanzee as our “cousin” is our difficulty grappling with the very idea of intelligence. Human intelligence is an outlier, by orders of magnitude. So if common descent is true, it does not follow that our chimpanzee “cousin” must be vastly more intelligent than other animals. Do we expect a great scientist’s relatives to be necessarily science-minded? Talents and interests do run in families, but outliers also can appear without apparent antecedents. Contra Darwin, nature does make leaps, and background studies
may not help much in accounting for extreme outliers.

(Note: That fact is well illustrated by the surprising variations in the levels of intelligence of birds, as above.)

At times, the assumptions behind the studies (or at least their publicity) can give the impression of a detailed “tree of intelligence,” such that, if humans are smarter than chimps, mammals must be smarter than birds, and birds smarter than reptiles. But intelligence isn’t quite like that. First, we don’t really know what intelligence is, in the sense that we know what water is. Definitions are on offer, of course, but they mainly describe what intelligence enables. And when we look into evidence for animal intelligence, we risk making some counterintuitive discoveries.

Like intelligence in fish, for instance. The orange-dotted tuskfish digs a clam out of the sand, carries it over to a rock, and repeatedly throws it against the rock to crush it. Says one researcher, “It requires a lot of forward thinking, because there are a number of steps involved. For a fish, it’s a pretty big deal.” Darwinists typically short-circuit discussions of intelligent behavior by insisting that natural selection just naturally selected it. But that a fish brain is capable of such a behavior, irrespective of its origin, is an unexpected finding.

Intelligent Invertebrates

Some invertebrates, especially mollusks, are also unexpectedly intelligent. Underwater footage shows that, in the first known example of tool use among octopi, one species of octopus has learned to dig up and use discarded halved coconut shells as a shelter. Neatly halved coconuts are a human discard, so the behavior may actually have been learned in recent millennia. Researchers think that the octopi were using some less satisfactory material before, but they had the intelligence to just switch.

According to researcher Mark Norman, “They probe their arms down to loosen the mud, then they rotate them out.”

After turning the shells so the open side faces upwards, the octopuses blow jets of mud out of the bowl before extending their arms around the shell—or if they have two halves, stacking them first, one inside the other—before stiffening their legs and tip-toeing away.

But intelligence is very unevenly distributed among invertebrates. Clams and oysters are also mollusks, and they are as sharp as marbles. Having eight tentacles and no shell possibly favors the development of intelligence in octopi. (Here is an octopus opening a twist lid jar for the food inside.) Which raises an interesting question: How much intelligence in animals is driven by a given body plan, as opposed to descent from one or another branch of the putative Tree of Life?

A Crucial Ingredient

If certain body plans favor the increase of information as a problem-solving tool, there is potential intelligence in nature—like potential energy perhaps—and we do not yet know how to talk about it. The reason we do not yet know how to talk about it is that we have focused on how much blind nature can do via natural selection, without intelligence. Yet there is no reason to believe that lack of intelligence can produce intelligence by material forces alone. For one thing, intelligence is different by its very nature.

As Darwinist G. C. Williams admitted in 2004,

Information doesn’t have mass or charge or length in millimeters. Likewise, matter doesn’t have bytes. You can’t measure so much gold in so many bytes. It doesn’t have redundancy, or fidelity, or any of the other descriptors we apply to information. This dearth of shared descriptors makes matter and information two separate domains of existence, which have to be discussed separately, in their own terms.5

But these two separate domains unite in life forms. In an article in Scientific American in 2003, physicist Jacob D. Bekenstein noted: “Ask anybody what the physical world is made of, and you are likely to be told ‘matter and energy.’ Yet if we have learned anything from engineering, biology and physics, information is just as crucial an ingredient.”

We won’t get very far in understanding intelligence in life forms until we take the domain of information seriously, and Darwinian materialism is the greatest obstacle at present.

Summary: We are told that intelligence is created when natural selection acts on random mutations in an individual, resulting in the survival and replication of the fittest (Darwinian evolution). Because greater intelligence confers more fitness, it naturally builds up in some life forms. There are several problems with this claim: If intelligence reliably confers fitness, why do only a few, disparate life forms show it? If intelligence does not reliably confer fitness, why is a fitness explanation useful? True, such an explanation conforms to classic Darwinian thinking, but it provides no further insight. Also, how does any such explanation relate to humans being such extreme outliers?

6. Do animals have a sense of self?

In some ways, this is an easier question than whether animals have consciousness. Great physicists have disagreed that consciousness can even be mapped onto materiality. So let’s start with more basic questions:

– Does a sense of self mean a drive to continue to exist? All life forms seem to have that; it is one of the factors that distinguishes life from non-life.

– Does it mean sentience (feeling, in the sense that my pain is my pain, not the world’s, and I individually don’t like it)? Many life forms have that.

– Does it mean self-awareness? Some life forms apparently have self-awareness. An animal, sensing that he is likely to lose a contest with a bigger, stronger rival, may simply submit or flee instead. That decision does not necessarily require “rational” thought, but it does require some sense of what he is, as opposed to what the other animal is.

– Does it mean abstract thought, or rational or moral reasoning? The evidence does not seem to point in that direction, but we can explore further.

Recently, I wrote a piece for Salvo 34, not yet on line, but noted here, which includes the information that celebrity skeptic Carl Sagan had been learning “Dolphinese” in the 1960s, to talk to dolphins. Not so fast, Carl. There is no Dolphinese. Flipper is not reading your books. As I noted in Salvo,

… problem-solving intelligence and sensory abilities are not a sense of self. If problem-solving was all it took, computers would have selves. They don’t. Similarly, a reaction to pain does not show that a life form is even conscious; unconscious humans can react to pain but probably don’t experience a sense of self.

Australian philosopher Vincent Torley, whose 2007 University of Melbourne thesis,The Anatomy of a Minimal Mind addresses these questions, told me,

“Self” turns out to be a multi-layered concept. It may mean: (i) this body that moves when I want it to, and that feels my pain and pleasure; (ii) this agent with these intentions, as distinct from other agents, who are above or below me in the social hierarchy, and who may have contrary intentions; (iii) this thinker of these thoughts, which can be expressed in language.

He thinks that a cat, for example, certainly has (i) and probably (ii), but not (iii). That makes sense, and we will return to the minimal mind later, as it may be a help in mapping out some of the issues.

Much natural cat behavior—for example, neurologically triggered self-defense mechanisms—does not require conscious awareness apart from, probably, (i), at least as an observer. But learning to live with humans may create challenges for the cat that promote a more sharply determined sense of self (ii).

Sound implausible? Consider: Freed from the need to hunt seriously or protect himself, a cat may focus more on status issues with respect to other cats, animals, or people. Rather than the mere endless fight for physical survival, he now has… politics. An animal with no sense of self in Torley’s sense (ii) is not likely seek to change its status, as bees and ants do not. An animal with nothing more pressing to think o may make status a lifelong pursuit. But no matter what the degree of intensity with which he pursues it, he will not get from (ii) to (iii).

Well, we have much to learn, but the minimal self is a good concept to keep in mind.

Summary: Do animals have a sense of “self,” beyond the drive to continue to exist that distinguishes life from non-life? A sense of “self” must also go beyond sentience (an earthworm’s reaction to light, for example, need not be conscious). It should include self-awareness, distinguishing between self and not-self in complex environment. Many animals can do that. What they don’t seem to have is a sene of themselves as a thinker of these thoughts, which requires an ability to simply, easily, regularly, and routinely abstract. This is the great leap that humans have made, for which we have no satisfactory account at present. 



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