Defining animal intelligence

Do animals think? No, not like animals. Like us. Do animals thinks like we think?

The question could hardly have been asked before Darwin. The universal belief was that the human mind was a special creation, a “one off” in God’s glorious menagerie of life.

How close are our animal relatives to us? More important to many, how close are we to them? After Darwin, and especially now, with our ever-growing capacity to study the functions of the brain, the question is everywhere.

For example, on July 6th, the two PBS stations available on local cable happened to broadcast an unintentional daily double — two repeat broadcasts, one on animal intelligence in general and the other on the reasoning skills of non-human primates. And the July 2nd issue of New Scientist featured “Simple minds: How animals think,” by Emma Young.

While some researchers answer a firm “yes” or an equally firm “no” to the question of whether or not animals think, as Young writes, “more popular is the idea that the mental experiences of other animals lie on a kind of spectrum, ranging from a primitive kind of awareness to the rich and complex stream of thoughts in the human mind.”

So the big question is: What does it mean “to think”? How you answer the “Do animals think?” question depends greatly on where you draw the line between “non-thinking” and “thinking.”

Answers range from simple processes like paying attention to changes in the animal’s environment, through “forward planning” behaviours, to metacognition (thinking about our thinking), to abstract thinking, to language.

Some critics remain skeptical due to the kinds of evidence available. Some people are not convinced of the truly “scientific” nature of observational studies of animal behaviour. After all, isn’t attributing intelligence to a hummingbird that remembers what flowers it has visited most recently, or even to a chimpanzee who uses sign language, just an educated guess? Without any truly objective evidence, it’s all just speculation and wish-fulfillment, isn’t it?

The answer to much of this criticism is an increasing emphasis on anatomical brain studies. If researchers can show, for example, that non-human primate brains have all of the necessary physical equipment for thought, that will show that there are no anatomical barriers to thinking in our nearest relatives. In fact, recent fMRI studies of “signatures” of consciousness in human brains have not identified any uniquely human brain structures that are associated with thinking.

While behavioural studies may lack the empiricism to be definitive, they are nevertheless enormously interesting. We are fascinated when animals do things that we do because we can think. Not tricks, like Clever Hans reading his trainer’s body language — real problem-solving, real planning, real cooperation.

I remember vividly my own animal intelligence “WoW!” moment. On a PBS documentary the title of which I no longer recall, a chimpanzee was faced with a puzzle. A tasty piece of fruit was placed at the bottom of a transparent tube, out of arm’s reach. I expected the chimp to try to wrench the tube off its mounts, or even to look around for a stick that might be used to spear the food. Maybe the chimp had tried these unsuccessfully in earlier attempts. But this time, to my astonishment, the chimp walked over to his water station, took a large gulp of water, carried it in his mouth to the tube, and spat the mouthful into it. He did this over and over, until he had floated the fruit high enough in the tube for him to reach in and grab it. I was stunned. This guy was smart!

While most studies have focused on our close primate relatives, like my spitting chimp, some of the most interesting recent research features another notoriously clever animal: the crow.

Two studies in particular highlight different parts of the crow’s cognition.

In a well-reported experiment, University of Washington researchers, intrigued by the behaviour of crows on campus, devised a memory test. Led by wildlife science professor John Marzuff, investigators donned a “caveman” mask — inevitably nicknamed “Crow Magnon” — before capturing and banding a number of crows. On other encounters which did not threaten the crows, investigators wore a “neutral” mask, depicting former Vice President Dick Cheney, who, as the researchers noted, got to play the “good guy” for once.

Later, when investigators revisited the crows, when they wore the caveman mask, the crows responded by “scolding” them. When they wore the Cheney mask, the crows remained passive.

Clearly, the crows had learned to fear one face, but not the other. But would they remember? The results were surprising. While 20% of the crows scolded the caveman mask after the initial study, five years later 60% of the crows scolded. And crows from other bands, more than a kilometre away, also scolded the caveman mask. Not only had the crows learned — they also had taught, both their offspring and their neighbours.

The University of Washington crows used facial recognition to assess danger. And they learned which faces to fear directly, from their parents, and from their neighbours. This kind of multi-source learning suggests sophisticated cognition. Whether or not this cognition is “consciousness,” again depends on one’s definitions.

The U.S. Army was interested enough in Marzuff’s work to approach him about teaching crows to recognize and scold an image of Osama Bin Laden. The apparent idea was to train crows as reconnaissance agents.

(No ethical concern about military exploitation of conscious animals has been reported. Takes us back to reports of the U. S. Navy releasing dolphins with torpedoes strapped to their snouts into Haiphong harbour during the Vietnam War.)

Less elaborate but perhaps even more intriguing is an observation that shows crows’ ability to make adapted use of tools. As reported early this year, New Caledonian crows, which use and reshape twigs to dig insects out of hard to reach places, were observed making a new use of an old tool.

As the BBC reported:  “To understand more about their behaviour, researchers from the University of Oxford, UK, introduced a group of crows to a variety of objects including a rubber snake, a flashing LED bike light and a tin of paint. … The research team aimed to study how the crows reacted to objects that were not associated with food.”

In the study, crows were observed to “test” unfamiliar and potentially threatening objects by prodding them with twigs held in their beaks. The birds were exploring their environment in an essentially technological way, using the twigs as intermediaries between themselves and the unknown objects.

Dr. Jo Wimpenny considers the results significant:

Up until now, no species of bird has been reported using tools to achieve more than one function, and that might suggest that avian tool use is a narrowly programmed adaptation that has evolved for one purpose – typically food extraction.

The use of tools for multiple purposes – in this case extractive foraging and information-gathering — would suggest that tool use is under a broader level of control, involving higher-level cognitive operations and greater flexibility in information-processing.

Is this consciousness? It’s certainly complicated cognition, whatever it is. Dr. Wimpenny notes that “only a few species, other than humans, use tools to achieve multiple functions, so our observations are exciting because they suggest that New Caledonian crows may also qualify to join this small group.”

So slide down, everybody — it seems there’s a new player on the bench.


3 thoughts on “Defining animal intelligence

  1. This is a great post, and you have raised many important questions! Our animal relatives are close to us in many ways, and we are closer to them than many of us would like to acknowledge.
    It feels right to me to say that animals do think, and that all of us, humans and animals, lie somewhere on a mental spectrum of sorts. That said, I’m not sure I agree with Young’s notion that humans are always at the “rich and complex” pinnacle of the spectrum. In some ways, sure, our cognitive abilities are unmatched, but in other areas, it seems to me that other animals may possibly be the ones who enjoy the richer experiences (I’m not just thinking of cognitive abilities, like echolocation in cetaceans, that we simply do not have, but also wondering whether the emotional depth of certain animals, like elephants, may be particularly deep and intense).
    I agree with you that much of the analysis in the area of animal (and human) thought invites skepticism, is inherently subjective, and is highly dependent on where one draws lines and how one defines fundamental concepts like what it means “to think.” Because of these factors, I suspect that there will always be disagreement about conclusions … and that what one concludes may be highly dependent on one’s starting premises. I also agree that empirical studies of comparative anatomy and the like will become more prevalent (and will be fascinating!), but am not sure whether this will lead to greater consensus or whether it will simply provide people with a more “objective” way to make the arguments that they already want to make (with those favoring commonality focusing on similarities, and those favoring human uniqueness pointing to differences).
    Anyhow, thanks for the post. If you’re at all interested, I’ve recently started a blog called AnimalWise ( that focuses on animal intelligence in a way that is targeted towards non-scientists (like me). If you do check it out, I’d welcome any reactions you have.

  2. Thanks for your comments on the article. I’m another non-scientist with an interest in intelligence and behaviour (among other things).

    Your own page – – is both ambitious and informative. You cover lots of research, and you present it all clearly and interestingly.

    Anyone with an interest in a good animal intelligence digest will enjoy your site.
    I’ve bookmarked it myself!

  3. I have spent a fair amount of time on the glaciers of Denali during my several attempts to get to the summit. Climbers new to the art of living on glaciers quickly learn about the Denali Ravens. They are smart! On our 1983 Denali visit we followed standard advice and buried our food caches in a snow pit at each drop site. The food was covered with snow blocks and then plastic tarps. Loose snow was added to make a small, easy to spot, mound. The mound was then identified by thrusting one of our snow wands into summit of the mound. We left our first cache sites confident we had nullified the Raven threat. How wrong can you be? Very, as it turned out upon our return several days later. As we approached the cache site we observed a hole in the snow adjacent to our proudly waving wand. Surrounding the hole was a ring of debris that was mainly shredded plastic. The hole was about the size of a Raven, or so it appeared to us. At the bottom of the hole, the tarp was torn apart exposing our food. There was a cavity where the food had been eaten. Our loss of food was minimal as the Ravens could not reach far into the cavity. Our loss of pride was somewhat greater; round one went to the Ravens. We certainly did not teach the Ravens their thieving ways. They must have learned them by observing previous climbers. I wonder what new tricks they have learned since 1983.
    The Old Machinist

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