The Evolution of the Study of Animal Intelligence

Q & A with my Dog Jersey girl

In veganism, the question of animal intelligence seems automatically accepted without scrutiny.  Vegans have a confirmation bias towards animals and their respective intelligence levels because we’ve taken a profound action by changing how we consume food and products. 

Not consuming animal products is one thing, but arming yourself with knowledge against a tide of omnivores who refuse to accept animals as intelligent beings worthy of respect is another. 

As a skeptic and an empiricist, I personally yearn to understand the machinations of such an idea. The more I learn, the more the concept of the difference between human and animal cognition dissolves.

Animals as Caricatures

a smart chimp
a smart chimp

In a very revealing and readable article in the Atlantic, the issue of the efficacy of the study of animal intelligence is challenged. The idea being that scientists use tests that set human standards to animals, which is largely unproductive and inefficient. 

The ‘pointing test’ moves the location of an animal’s food. The researcher then points to where the food is going to be. If the animals can tell the difference, then it’s smart. 

Another is the ‘mirror test’, where an animal is supposed to recognize itself in the mirror. The researcher puts a red dot on the animal’s forehead. If the animal acknowledges the dot, then it’s smart. 

These methods are as inefficient as suggesting that a low IQ score or a bad result on your SAT’s means you’re not going to be able to be successful in life. IQ (intelligence quotient) and SAT’s as a measure of human intelligence don’t even come close to having scientific consensus. 

We take animals out of their natural environments and give them these tests that are arbitrary. We unfairly anthropomorphize the animal and judge them based on traits that can only be realistically applied to humans. Under those auspices, who lacks intellect, the animal or the people?

Traditional research doesn’t take into account that animals have the potential to be as individual as people. What makes one person brilliant might be completely nonsensical to another. The individual traits that make one guard dog able to memorize commands instantly isn’t as important to an emotional support animal.

Applying this thinking to animals reveals that we need a more efficient methodology for determining their level of understanding. For a long time, scientists were lost in how to proceed, speaking to current cultural constraints, lack of funding, as well as the lack of imagination of the scientific community in general. 

If left there, one could easily surmise that actors that study ‘the method’ at the Lee Strasberg Institute, having to act like animals for extended periods of time, will have a better chance at being able to understand the motivations and intelligence levels of different animal species than researchers with a Phd in their respective fields simply because they’ve realistically put themselves in the animals’ shoes.

This elephant paints, no joke.
This elephant paints, no joke.

Encephalization is a dated concept that measures evolutionary expansion of the brain mass and the reorganizing of functions from non-cortex to cortex. According to the traditional view, the term encephalization suggests that it’s the relative size of the subject animal’s brain when compared to other similar creatures that makes the difference in cognitive ability

Mechanization, which is the natural instinctive reaction of an animal versus that same animal being deemed to have intelligently decided to take that course of action, is another term that demands more research. The study of cognition seems inexorably intertwined with an animal’s ability to make decisions that might initially seem against it’s best interests.

More recent studies show with promising results and methodology that it’s the overall size of the brain that makes the difference. If an animal has a big brain it will exhibit self-control and be more apt to prosper.  

This particular study was done in conjunction with many different groups of researchers and scientists, but they compiled the evidence together to create a sizable group of animals that point to all similar results, while also practically disproving encephalization altogether.

From the National Geographic article:

“Many scientists believed that relative brain size mattered more. There’s even a measure called the encephalization quotient (EQ) that estimates intelligence by comparing an animal’s brain to that of a typical creature of the same size. And yet, for self-control at least, it’s absolute size that’s important. That was true whether they looked at all their 36 species, or just at the primates.”

According to this article and the study it details, animals with larger brains exhibit more self-control. They explore different areas for food sources instead of deferring to the same region for foraging. They stop in the middle of mating to answer the challenge of a rival. They provide nourishment in giving some of their own collected food to another that’s hungry. 

As measures of intelligence, most of the animals that excel in these tests have larger brains. When you look at the behavior of self-control, it seems difficult to parse the difference between this natural behavioral phenomenon that animals tend towards and a human being’s own sense of civility.

People have civilizations, technology, intricate language, and a host of other cognitive traits that we believe differentiate us from animals, but these studies illustrate a new dynamic. It’s possible that all living things exist on a spectrum of cognitive ability with the smaller-brained animals on one end, and the larger-brained animals on the other. 

Soul Man

Once you internalize this data, or concepts like mechanization, it becomes obvious that human behavior itself is largely instinctive in nature, yet influenced by our large brains. Where we would normally suggest that humans are making individual decisions, our minds have an underlying programming that causes us to be determined to behave in a certain way. 

The thing I find interesting is that the distinction between the intelligence of animals and humans dissipates the more you become immersed in this type of study, or at least it does if you try to be truly objective. To a vegan, that seems like a really valuable set of tools with which to understand their reality.

When you take an animal, or human for that matter, out of its natural environment and unfairly apply a set of standards to it, the results aren’t reliable. Maybe the problem really has nothing to do with science at all. Why is it taking us this long to come to these obvious conclusions?

Living beings, regardless of brain size, are motivated on the same spectrum. Studies suggest brain size is the key to cognitive ability, but that doesn’t account for the existential nature of an animal’s being and why humans see it as so vastly different than their own. 

Why are we asking these questions? Is it out of curiosity, or because in revealing an animal’s intelligence we learn more about our own humanity and intelligence? Behavior is incentivized by myriad motivations, which are both individual and social, internal and external, but it doesn’t answer the real question that studying animal intelligence is supposed to reveal. 

The idea that we have sentience or consciousness and that animals don’t is still without evidence. The more we learn about the subject of animal intelligence, the less anthropomorphized they become, which adds a whole other layer of responsibility to our interactions with them. The emphasis here is more on a human being’s inability to accept a changing perspective on our place in the natural world than it is on how to measure animal cognition.

You could learn a thing or two by studying more, son.
You could learn a thing or two by studying more, son.

Scientists, even as recently as a decade ago, still blatantly refuse to assign animals a sense of consciousness because they don’t have spoken language like people. Language helps humans to codify concepts and traits of their physical reality, but we’re just as handcuffed to the prospect of language as a determinant factor of cognitive ability as animals are to their lack of language.

Without a word for blue the Himba tribe of Namibia had difficulty recognizing the color at all, but could alternatively very easily see and recognize a barely noticeable different shade of green. Why? Simply because they had a word for it. The use of language allows our brain to more easily file away and recognize concepts, but it’s not an end all be all to intelligence itself.

Is the Himba tribe closer to animals because they can’t see blue as easily? Are they more intelligent than other humans because they can see a lighter shade of green that the rest of humanity?

This is a level of cognitive dissonance within the scientific community, that until just recently, was so historically insurmountable that it went all the way back to Darwin and his beagle.

The study of the studying of animal intelligence can be redundant in both syntax and practice. You can see an evolution in thinking over time though. A slow acceptance of higher awareness in animals from studying their behavior, going as far back as the late 1800’s to now. 

People’s perspective of animal intelligence has morphed from what is essentially complex poking and prodding to the realization of a method that puts all living things on the same spectrum of behavior as human beings.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *