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With Tests that Avoid Species-Bias, Animals are Being Proved More Intelligent than Previously Thought
“What is man, that you should magnify him?” Is he “the paragon of the animals”? The “rational animal”? Whatever man is, that need not be disrupted by the intelligence of other animals, which due to more and more clever testing by humans is being revealed as more formidable than previously thought.
For instance, Ayuma, a young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University performed a test in 2007 where it would recall a random series of nine digits, and greatly outperformed humans. This case was reported in the Wall Street Journal, whose thesis seems to be that we are testing animals unfairly – it almost sounds like a critique of inner-city SAT testing – in order to flatter human intelligence. But there have never been a lack of scientists who wanted to flaunt and glorify their particular favorite species, such as Koko the talking gorilla. Human chauvinism is unlikely to be what’s keeping those animals down, but merely our slowly evolving means of testing them.
With some especially ingenious testing, we can expose the true intellectual merits of the various species, and see how they compare with human beings.
Previously testing elephants with mirrors, for instance, failed to use mirrors of the proper dimensions; the standard test is to put a mark on the animals face and see if they would recognize the mark as their own using a mirror. Elephants didn’t do too well on this test, but if given a larger mirror, they did better.
Another elephant test that went amiss was seeing if they could use tools, sticks as apes had use. But elephants were less likely to use sticks to procure food not because they didn’t grasp the concept, but because their trunk can’t be used for smelling when its manipulating a stick. Another tool, such as a chair, could be used to test elephants’ tool-using capacity, and in this regard they tested will, even seeking out a tool that is out of sight to address a problem at hand – a behavior only large-brained species such as apes and dolphins will do.
By testing chimpanzee’s facial recognition capacity, it has recently been discovered – and it almost sounds like common sense – that we should be testing their recognition of other chimps’ faces, and not human faces. With such parameters, the chimpanzees did incredibly well, even correctly guessing which chimps were the offspring of similar looking mothers.
Another problem in comparative animal testing is that children are often tested while being held by their mothers. As the “Clever Hans” horse trick demonstrated, the horse could add and subtract merely by sensing its owner’s unconscious body gestures – not that it could really do math on its own. Children can do the same. So it is not instructive to test children while they are being held by mothers who know the answers to the questions, especially when comparing them to chimps whose mothers are not present or otherwise don’t have inside information.
By taking special care to test animals per their capacity, and not according to a human reference – what works for us because we are human – we are finding that animals are more intelligent than we previously thought. This helps us reconcile how intelligence evolved and how the human brain represents a continuum with all of nature.