(ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE) — Are you smarter than the average animal? Maybe not. Researchers say that animals rival peoples’ intelligence regarding the cognitive processing of social etiquette and survival skills. But how can this be? Do chimps really fake laugh like humans do in uncomfortable social scenes? Are sheep better gardeners? Would birds perform better on game shows? Read on and find out. It may sound absurd, but then again, truth really is stranger than fiction. — Global Animal.
New York Times, Alexandra Horowitz and Ammon Shea
Humans have long been fascinated with animal intelligence. Scientific studies have asked if animals use language or tools; have culture; can imitate, cooperate, empathize or deceive.
Inevitably, the results of these studies invite comparison with our own cognitive faculties. In such comparisons, humans nearly always come out on top. An impartial observer might suggest that the deck is stacked. After all, we are the ones running these tests.
But if we look at some of the subtler aspects of animal behavior, the beasts begin to offer surprisingly stiff competition. A few recent research papers describe animal competence at social and cognitive tasks that humans often struggle with — mastering conversational etiquette, understanding botanical classification, competing on game shows and figuring out how to get a drink when you’re thirsty and the only glass of water is glued to the table and your hands are tied behind your back.
“Aping Expressions? Chimpanzees Produce Distinct Laugh Types When Responding to Laughter of Others,” in the journal Emotion (2011).
You’re at a dinner party. Your hostess regales you with a long, meandering tale of her recent back surgery. It ends with attempted humor: she laughs and glances at you. You laugh in response, trying to convey an appreciation for her humor that you don’t actually feel. Congratulations: you are now at the level of social politeness of chimpanzees.
In this study, the laughs of 59 chimps (yes, they do laugh) were recorded and the sounds analyzed. The researchers discovered that when one chimp laughed others sometimes engaged in “laugh replications” that lacked the full acoustic structure of spontaneous laughter. In other words, they were fake-laughing.
This happened more often in more newly formed colonies, where, perhaps, the individuals were less familiar with one another. With your spouse of 25 years, you can simply stare at him stony-faced when he tells you his favorite “funny” story yet again.
“Do sheep (Ovis aries) categorize plant species according to botanical family?” in Animal Cognition (2011).
Type “Is the tom…” into Google, and the search engine, presuming that you are beset with the same burning question that has plagued so many, offers to finish your query for you: “Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?” Given that we humans are still puzzled by the botanical status of one of our most common vegetables, er, fruits, the performance of the 12 lambs described in this study is humbling.
After learning that eating sainfoin, but not fescue, was followed by a stomachache, the lambs knew to pick cocksfoot over alfalfa when given the choice in the future. Have no idea what this means? In non-lamb terms, if a pasture legume caused indigestion (thanks to lithium chloride added by the researchers) but a grass found in pastures did not, the lambs, when facing a later choice between a different legume and a different grass, opted for the grass over the legume. In other words, the lambs demonstrated an ability to form a generalization about the relative digestibility of families of plants. (Lest sheep let these findings go to their heads, note that recent research found that some plants communicate with each other to raise defenses against herbivores.)
“Are Birds Smarter Than Mathematicians? Pigeons (Columba livia) Perform Optimally on a Version of the Monty Hall Dilemma,” in the Journal of Comparative Psychology (2010).
The old game show “Let’s Make a Deal” inspired a famous probability puzzle. A contestant has three doors to choose from: one hides a spectacular prize; the other two each hide something considered undesirable, like a goat. Once the contestant makes a choice, the host, Monty Hall, reveals a goat behind one of the unchosen doors, and offers the contestant the chance to switch his choice to the third door.
On the show, few people switched. But famously, probability shows that it is much better to switch. We humans are reluctant to accept this: in laboratory studies, subjects switch only a third of the time. We perform only slightly better if we get a chance to play the game dozens of times or if the probability is explained to us beforehand.
But pigeons that were offered a version of Monty Hall’s choice aced the test. The experiment involved pecking keys and winning “mixed grain,” instead of selecting doors hiding unknown prizes. After training in the game, the pigeons switched 96 percent of the time. The lesson? Take a pigeon with you if you’re going to be on this game show (now back on television).
“Rooks Use Stones to Raise the Water Level to Reach a Floating Worm,” in Current Biology (2009).
One of Aesop’s fables tells the tale of a crow who quenches his thirst by filling a nearly empty pitcher with stones until the water level rises high enough to drink. Displacement is an insightful solution — could a bird really come up with it? After all, one can easily imagine humans failing to do so (say, reality-show contestants who, faced with an immobile glass and a “no hands” rule, contort themselves futilely).
In this study, four rooks (a type of bird) faced an Aesopian task: confronted with a vial partly filled with water and holding a floating worm, could they extract this bounty?
Easy. After considering the problem, they collected and dropped into the tube just enough stones to bring the worm within snatching distance. Look for this challenge to be included in the next season of “Fear Factor.”
There is no need to be either frightened or overly excited by these findings. The animals won’t be taking over anytime soon, and there is very little chance you can train your parrot to help your child get into the right kindergarten (even animal cognition has its limits). And there is still one notable area of behavior in which animals have shown no sign of matching us: they appear to be not at all interested in running experiments testing our cognition.