Monday 10 October 2011

"Are animals like people in that, within a species, some are very intelligent while others are...uh...thick?"

This was another Yahoo Answers question I replied to, as follows:

Obviously, it depends on what you mean by "intelligence."

Some animals - the so-called "lower" ones - often have no brain or brains far too primitive for thought, so one can rule out intelligence in them. It's meaningless to talk of intelligence in a tapeworm, for instance.

In animals with more organised nervous systems, like social insects, intelligence is still not a given, because their responses are hard-wired by evolution and neural programming. It's only when you come to the molluscs - specifically the cephalopods - that you see evidence of "intelligence" in terms of behaviour geared to solving problems which aren't encountered in everyday life. For instance, octopuses in aquariums can do things like open boxes and solve puzzles, which they'd never have to do in the wild.


For the purposes of this argument, then, we can consider "intelligence" to be the ability to solve problems one is not evolutionarily hard-wired to solve.

Now, going by that definition, we have to consider only those animals which

1. Can interact with humans in a measurable way

2. Are biologically equipped to demonstrate problem-solving abilities (even a genius fish couldn't do much to prove its intelligence without a voice or any other way of manipulating objects).

So, we come down to animals which can either demonstrate behaviourally that they are intelligent problem-solvers, which pretty much restricts us to birds or mammals, or can also manipulate objects, which takes us back to the cephalopods. All these categories have large brains and the ability to respond in a plastic fashion to the environment, unlike the hard-wired responses of insects, for example.

Among them, again, some species show a markedly higher level of this ability than others; crows, for instance, are far and away the most intelligent bird species, just as primates show higher levels of intelligence than civet cats or kangaroos.

Also, it's fairly obvious that all animals of a species aren't identical in every way. And we are also animals. Therefore, we can take it that since different people show different levels of intelligence, animals of other species will also (where applicable) show different levels of intelligence to solve the same problem.

I hope this goes some way to answering the question?


  1. Interesting, and hope that fellow got his answer...

    There would have to be variety in animal brains, or else there would never have been any evolution in nervous systems...

    That having been said, I still think that less daily activity in humans requires complex cerebrum ability than we would like to believe...

  2. Whoa. This post AND Katy's comment are awesome!


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