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Are Animals Intelligent?

Date: May 16, 2012

Last Update: September 9th, 2023.

How to cite: Barata, R. (2017). Are Animals Intelligent?. Human-Animal Science.

Whether animals possess intelligence has long intrigued pet owners, trainers, and behavioral specialists. However, determining animal intelligence is a complex issue that requires careful consideration of various factors. I will explore the definitions of behavior, intelligence, intelligence in biology, cognition, anthropomorphism, declarative knowledge, and procedural knowledge to establish a solid foundation for evaluating animal intelligence scientifically. Additionally, I will discuss the pitfalls of anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism in labeling animal behavior as intelligent, emphasizing the importance of precision in our definitions and avoiding unwarranted assumptions.

Defining Key Concepts

  1. Behavior: Behavior refers to an organism's actions and reactions in response to internal or external stimuli.
  2. Intelligence: In a scientific context, intelligence is not a suitable term for describing animal behavior. It is typically reserved for describing the general cognitive abilities observed in humans.
  3. Cognition: Cognitive abilities in animals encompass responses to specific events that are studied rather than describing them as "clever" behaviors. Cognitive processes often involve the manipulation of declarative knowledge instead of procedural knowledge.
  4. Anthropomorphism: Anthropomorphism is the tendency to attribute human-like qualities or characteristics to animals. Such attributions can distort our understanding of animal behavior.
  5. Declarative Knowledge and Procedural Knowledge: Declarative knowledge involves factual or descriptive information, whereas procedural knowledge pertains to skills and processes used to perform tasks.

Taking a Scientific Perspective

When evaluating animal intelligence from a scientific standpoint, it is essential to consider the concept of biological intelligence in the context of evolution, natural selection, and fitness. Biological intelligence should be defined by an organism's ability to adapt to its environment and enhance its chances of survival and reproduction.

  • Evolutionary Perspective: One way to understand animal intelligence is to examine it through the lens of evolution. Over millions of years, species have developed diverse cognitive abilities to meet the challenges posed by their environments. For example, some animals have evolved remarkable problem-solving skills that are highly adaptive, while others have developed intricate social structures and communication systems.
  • Examples of Cognitive Abilities: Researchers have uncovered various examples of animal cognitive abilities. For instance, studies of corvids like crows and ravens have demonstrated their ability to use tools, plan for the future, and understand cause-and-effect relationships. Dolphins exhibit complex communication and problem-solving abilities, and primates like chimpanzees and bonobos have shown advanced social intelligence and the capacity to learn from one another.
  • Ethical Considerations: While exploring animal intelligence, ethical considerations are paramount. Understanding animal cognition affects how we treat and interact with animals, particularly in research and captivity. It raises questions about our moral responsibility towards intelligent species and prompts animal rights and welfare discussions.
  • Comparative Intelligence: To assess animal intelligence, scientists often employ comparative psychology, which involves studying the cognitive abilities of different species and comparing them. This approach helps us gain insights into the diversity of intelligence across the animal kingdom. For example, while some animals excel in spatial reasoning, others showcase impressive memory or communication skills. Understanding these variations sheds light on the adaptive value of different forms of intelligence in various ecological niches.
  • Technological Advancements: Recent technological advancements have revolutionized the study of animal intelligence. Researchers can now use tools such as GPS tracking, neuroimaging, and advanced behavioral monitoring to delve deeper into the intricacies of animal cognition. These innovations enable scientists to gather data with unprecedented precision, expanding our knowledge of the cognitive processes that underpin animal behavior.

In Summary

Various scientific studies have explored animal cognition in navigation, problem-solving, social interactions, deceit, language, and abstract thinking. These investigations have necessitated the postulation of cognitive processes to explain observed behaviors. However, it is essential to note that such suggestions remain a subject of debate within the scientific community. Whether animals can think is an ongoing inquiry, underscoring the need for precision in our definitions and a cautious approach to labeling or defining behaviors.



References & Suggested Reading

Chance, P. (2008). Learning and Behavior. Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, Belmont, CA, 6th ed.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species 1st Edition. John Murray, Albemarle Street.

DeMello, M. (2012). Animals and Society: An introduction to human-animal studies. Columbia University Press.

Hickman, P. (2008). Integrated Principles of Zoology, 14th Edition. McGraw-Hill.

Lorenz, K. (1981). The foundations of ethology. Based on a translation of Vergleichende Verhaltensforschung, with revisions. Springer Science+Business Media New York.

Martin, P., Bateson, P. (2007). Measuring Behavior, An Introductory Guide. Cambridge University Press.

McFarland, D. (1998). Animal Behaviour. Benjamin Cummings. 3rd ed.

McFarland, D. (2006). Dictionary of Animal Behavior. Oxford University Press.

Shettleworth, S. (2010). Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior—Second Edition. Oxford University Press.

Smith, J.M. (1988). The Evolution of Animal Intelligence. In: Did Darwin Get It Right?. Springer, Boston, MA.