Comparing Animal Intelligences

From douzzer Thu Oct 24 01:25:08 PDT 1996
Newsgroups: sci.cognitive
Subject: Re: Animal intelligence
References: <>
Organization: (private)

>where do the primates, cetaceans and rodents
>and birds stand [?]

There is no objective way to compare intelligence between species, nor
is one feasible.  This is an even testier subject than comparison of
intelligence within a given species, itself a largely subjective

Birds do not have cerebral cortices - this places them in a very
different architectural category from mammals. Some birds have
remarkable abilities - beyond mimicry, some of them are able to use
spoken human language as part of their goal-fulfillment loop. They are
not capable of manipulating syntactic structures, though, and this is
to be expected. Humans are adept at the spectrum of human language
facilities because human languages - all of them - are constrained in
a variety of ways, determined by the organization of two specialized,
highly hemispherically assymetric, richly reciprocally connected areas
of the human cerbral cortex known as Broca's area (in the
posterolateral portion of the frontal lobe) and Wernicke's area (in
the portion of the temporal lobe immediately superior to the primary
auditory area).

It is surprising and fascinating that a brain that lacks not only the
specialization of areas 39 and 40 (the Brodmann numbers for the
language-specific cortical regions, if memory serves), but in fact ALL
Brodmann areas (a funny way of saying the entire cortex), can
meaningfully employ human language. What this says about the bird's
intelligence is highly equivocal. Most cognitivists will adhere to the
view that a squirrel, routinely engaging in intricate spatiotemporal
problem solving and planning, is more intelligent than a talking bird.

The comparison of the bird to mammals is just a moderate example of
architectural divergence. Even the much smaller architectural
differences among the mammals largely abnegate the value of direct
comparisons. If the scope is broadened (a lot), you'll have to
consider invertebrate intelligence, which in certain cases seems to be
plainly superior to many vertebrate intelligences. Certain octopuses
(maybe also squids, not sure) clearly demonstrate complex planning and
tool-using abilities; a cognitivist would be forced to conclude they
are of a higher grade of intelligence than, for example, reptiles.

Nonetheless, the subjectivity of these pronouncements preclude any
sort of discipline. Intelligence does not lend itself to analytical
categorization and comparison, not least of which because the meaning
of the term itself is fervently contested. The most extremely
subjective commentators will assert that degree of intelligence is
directly proportional to degree of cognitive similarity to humans.
This is fruitcake anthropocentrism. The most reductionist (and
pseudoobjective) commentator will hold that intelligence can be
directly and quantitatively measured as a function of cyto- and
myeloarchitectonic complexity and extent.

I can sit here and tell you that cetaceans, especially orca and
dolphins, are highly intelligent, but I'm sure it's not very useful to
say so.  Human scientists have collected striking evidence that some
cetaceans use their vocalization organ to project sonic holograms
which are perceived by other cetaceans using their sonar organs, and
that these projections are probably used both for utilitarian and
for artistic communication.  This is a capacity and dimension of
consciousness that humans do not naturally have; in theory, cetacean
language and social life could be far richer, with a far greater
bandwidth, than even today's computer-assisted human is capable of.

Are these cetaceans more intelligent than we? Well, the question is
nonsense. Humans have human intelligence, and cetaceans have cetacean
intelligence, and a quantitative comparison is misleading and

-Daniel Pouzzner
 System Architect