03 November 2022

Animal intelligence

 Animal intelligence

Topic by Norma
Essay by Lawrence

Our disadvantage about this topic is that we have millennia of bias against animals and copious arrogance about the superiority of human intelligence. The other issue is whether intelligence is some form of “physical” entity, or even a trait we inherit, or whether intelligence is some form of metaphysical thing in humans.

Plato attributed intelligence to the soul hence reaffirming the theological idea that intelligence is something only humans can have (see for example Wikipedia on intelligence). However, today there are many who realistically advocate that intelligence is not only genetic but also inherited: see for example “Genes don't just influence your IQ—they determine how well you do in school” in Science doi: 10.1126/article.22329. Whilst we can exclude the idea of a soul for our discussion scientific analyses do not necessarily give us a better understanding of what intelligence is or is not.

The problem with the scientific interpretation of intelligence being a genetic trait (for short) is that we have the impression that being intelligent is synonymous with having some physical trait: maybe something akin to blood is something we have. By definition, although the idea that intelligence is an aspect of the genes we can safely argue that intelligence is something that happens in the brain. Hence, the genes are responsible for how our brain functions and not what my friend thinks is intelligence

The question for us is whether intelligence is a cause with an action being the effect. Or whether we have a brain event (the cause) that leads to an action (effect) and we describe this (simplistic) idea as being intelligent. Of course, we have no reason to suppose that intelligent is to be found somewhere else other than the brain. My point is that intelligence is what happens when we employ our brain in a certain way to achieve something.

Another issue about intelligence and how it is measured in humans is that it is mainly based on western norms and culture. The report in Science is about a study in the UK that went further from the standard measure of intelligence, which is basically academic achievements, and considered the study group in other aspects of their life. The results still confirm the genetic/inheritance aspect of intelligence, but there is still a basic flaw with these studies. Mainly, the sample group might not reflect all members of society and certainly not all members of social/economic means in their life environment. The study reported in the Science report, like many other studies, compared twins. Furthermore, we have no problem with accepting the key role played by genetics, but this does not mean nurture does not play a role in intelligence.

Even if we cannot define intelligence without any doubts we can still have a working hypothesis of what intelligence is. Some people can see that someone is intelligent from what they do and how they support their actions. The other feature of intelligence in people is that even if someone is considered as being intelligent it does not mean that they are intelligent is all aspects of their life or life in general.

That we are intelligent in some aspects of our life implies that intelligence is experience based, which includes our knowledge, and task based activity, maybe to solve a problem. And there is nothing more important than survival, and this is where genetics comes in.

If intelligence is about solving problems then animals are intelligent, but they do not necessarily solve their problems in the way we do. For the purpose of this essay I will use dogs (for obvious reasons) and cats as a model for our discussion even though other species are more successful at survival for example, birds, bees, pigs, poultry, horses and so on.

All the domesticated breeds of dogs were at sometime employed for the benefit of humans. Those breeds that adapted to their circumstances moved on in evolution while some of their peers came to a dead end. Hence the ability for a dog breed to survive various changes in its evolutionary history must sure indicate a trait of intelligence.

The success of lap dogs, whose function or job is purely to keep humans company, is a case of dogs with recognizable intelligence. The pedigree of The Maltese dog, sometimes also known as Bichon Maltese, today emerged in the 19th century but there has always been a breed of white coated lap dogs known as Maltese dog (see Wikipedia: Maltese dog).

The point about the Maltese dog is that irrespective of their genetic pedigree they were very popular with the aristocracy and high society. In a way lap dogs charmed their way into evolutionary survival rather than physically working their way to survival success today, maybe like the Jack Russell breed.

We might correctly think that humans breeding animals for certain characteristics are a manipulation of these species, but this does not mean that these animals we domesticated do not themselves manipulate us. If this was not the case why is it that there are many more house cats or pigs or family dogs than whales or tigers. We are all familiar with campaigns to save the whale but not to save the family dog or house cat.

Best and take care

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