Wolf and Wildlife Studies

Animal Intelligence:  Smart or Stupid?

I had a dog that I like to think was fairly intelligent.  When teaching her commands, it had taken only a small amount of repetition and training for her to grasp the concepts.  Even after long periods of no training, usually weeks, she still remembered newly taught commands with no review.  She was also adept at solving problems, such as learning how to open the front door and continually come into the house.

Is this the bragging of a proud pet owner?  Hardly.  I bring up my dog’s apparent intelligence only for comparison with her “other side,” the stupid side.  When she was young, I watched her get so excited that she did not anticipate or think ahead like she normally would have.  She ended up walking into walls, the refrigerator, fell off steps, and even slipped off the boat dock into Puget Sound where we used to live.  She also had a bad habit of ingesting almost everything in the yard, and ate things that would have made a Billy goat puke.  So, was she smart or not?

What Is Intelligence?

Judging intelligence in animals is usually a difficult task.  The reason is that what we consider intelligent behavior may or may not apply to the animals we are working with.  They are not human and cannot be expected to interpret the world the same way we do.  My dog, for example, could be “smart” one moment then turn right around and do things that would make a toaster oven appear intelligent.

In essence, our definition of intelligence is a product of how we perceive the world.  We place value on it, such as saying, “This creature is stupid,” or “That creature is smart.”  A wolf’s life, for example, is not necessarily better than a spider’s.  Each is equipped to deal with its environment.  To a mammal, however, intelligence can be an asset.  This is particularly true for those species who use their wits as an adaptation for obtaining basic needs, i.e., food and shelter, instead of simply spinning webs or physically overpowering their enemies and prey.  Many species do both.  Wolves, for example, often appear to pre-plan attacks, as do orcas, and some spiders can spin elaborate and complicated webs.

The term intelligence, therefore, is abstract and involves more than only problem solving ability.  It carries no inherent value.  In other words, intelligent animals are not worth more or have more of a right to live than less intelligent animals.  Intelligence simply exists.  It is a survival tool used extensively by some species and moderately by others.

So what is a “smart” animal?  There is no one good or correct definition of intelligence, although most of us have a sense of what it is.  For example, after watching your household pets for a period of time you understand that they usually do not make decisions that hurt themselves or are self-destructive.  In fact, they learn from their mistakes and make corrections.  Learning from one’s mistakes is definitely a sign of intelligence, but is this trial and error learning or problem solving?

Forming And Using Generalized Rules

Although numerous criteria compose intelligence, creative problem solving is apparently a major component.  Having this ability can keep animals alive longer because they can avoid or think their way out of dangerous situations.  It may also improve the quality of their lives since they can find several different ways of doing something instead of only responding to their environment.  In other words, intelligence can give them options they would not otherwise have.

Solving problems largely depends on the ability to form and use generalized rules acquired from past experience.  These generalized rules are applied to a class of problems rather than to a single problem.  For example, most people have learned that touching hot stoves causes pain and burns the skin.  There is a relationship between heat and pain.  This is learned quickly and usually is applied to similar relationships, such as matches and light bulbs.  A generalized rule has now been formed - intensely hot things cause pain and burn your skin. 

Good problem solvers, such as primates, humans, wolves, and dolphins, use generalized rules.  It is the degree to which animals use these rules that apparently makes them “smart” or “dumb.”  Although it has remained difficult to find a specific definition of intelligence, actions rather than words often convey a better sense of what makes animals smart.  So in conclusion, consider the actions of this captive dolphin as it imitated the behavior of a nearby researcher:  

At the end of the observation session, the observer stood near the viewing port and looked into the dolphin tank.  The dolphins swam slowly around the tank; the mother and calf just ahead of another adult female.  As the group swam by the window, the calf stopped and looked at the observer.  The observer inhaled from his lit cigarette and playfully blew smoke against the glass.  He was
astonished when the animal immediately swam off to its mother, returned and released a mouthful of milk that produced a cloud similar to that of the cigarette smoke.
 (From Taylor and Saayman, 1973, in the scientific journal Behaviour)



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