Great Minds (Don’t Always) Think Alike: Recognising Animal Intelligence

Image Credit: jans canon, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

Baldrick: I have a plan, sir.

Blackadder: As cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University?

Baldrick: Yes, sir.

Even if you’re not familiar with the British classic Blackadder, if you’re an English speaker the expression “cunning as a fox” will need no explanation. Our fascination (or in some cases disregard for) the intelligence of animals, and our comparison of animals to our own levels of intelligence, have been a part of language for centuries.

Yet while the minds of animals have long fascinated scientists and casual observers alike, it took until the 1960s for our understanding of animal intelligence to really begin to take shape.

When this ‘cognitive revolution’ hit, for the first time, scientists really began to consider the unobservable mental processes behind behaviour. Animals were now thinking beings, not just acting ones. The intellectual playing field was, albeit slowly, being levelled.

When discussing animal cognition (the capacity for animals to process, and effectively act on, environmental information) from its earliest days to now, we often see reference to “higher” cognition, or similar terminology. We all likely have a good idea in our heads of which animals such terms are referring to – apes, corvids, and perhaps others such as cephalopods and cetaceans. Above even these animals, at the very top of this intellectual food chain, you will find us, humans.

This sort of ranking makes intuitive sense to us. We laud the “intelligence” of animals which display behaviours we recognise in ourselves, most notably rapid learning and problem solving. Other more abstract behaviours, such as elephants revisiting gravesites and dolphins using individual-specific whistles analogous to human names, also play into this perception. All of these behaviours that we commonly use as measuring sticks for intelligence, you may note, not only are closely associated with humans, but more specifically with factors that have driven our own relative dominance over the earth – our capacity for logical reasoning and social cooperation.

The Fault in Our Minds

It is not overly surprising, then, that the animals we perceive as our closest intellectual peers are also our closest relatives, the apes. But, at least to me, this kind of hierarchical thinking around animal intelligence seems distinctly flawed, for several reasons.

Firstly, our testing and perception of cognition is inherently, and rather inevitably, self-centred. For us to test an animal’s problem-solving capabilities, we must ourselves first design (and thus have solved) the test. We will then, in our own mind, have a preconceived notion of the solution, and our idea of “success” may be intrinsically linked to how similar an animal’s solution is to our own. This is somewhat circular logic, to start, and also feeds directly into my second, and more important point:

If we are assessing the brain’s capabilities as a problem-solving tool, we must acknowledge that all animal brains are solving different problems. Most animals, it can be said, “display exceptional skills in single cognitive domains, while performing poorly in others”. It is all well and good that a chimpanzee may be capable of complex tool use in the pursuit of food, but it seems to me to make little sense to diminish the intelligence of other species who do not do this when it is simply not necessary, or perhaps even contextually possible, for them to do so.

Work “Smarter”, Not Harder

Without wanting to prescribe intention to evolution, a general rule of thumb is that organisms will evolve to fit their niche as optimally, and efficiently, as they can. Mutations which improve a species’ survival (and can be passed on to their kids), will stick. Mutations which worsen a species’ chance of survival will likely not. Mutations which have no impact on survival, will be left to some degree of random chance. But they will not be positively selected for unless they provide some kind of benefit. In other words, a shark probably won’t be any good at sudoku, because it is utterly unnecessary for it to have evolved to be so.

Yet we take the position that a shark is less intelligent than humans or apes because it cannot produce the same complex problem-solving wizardry we pride ourselves on. I should note that most of the cognitive tests done on apes and corvids would be rather tricky to reproduce with a great white, but such are the perils of experimental science. In this way we often view intelligence as a linear variable, like a food chain. But as we learn more about the natural world, we realise that food webs are actually a more accurate representation. Treating intelligence as linear and homologous makes little sense, when it serves such wildly different purposes in different animals and environments. It is a broad spectrum controlling for a vast variety of behaviours, and interpreting a near incomprehensible range of environmental cues and pieces of information.

Because of this, there has long been a push to change the way we view cognitive research. Our thinking should be biocentric, i.e. focused on the contextual needs and ecology of the studied species, rather than anthropocentric.

The Owl and the Pussycat, or Why Animals Don’t Walk a Mile in Another Species’ Shoes

A prevalent assumption in many major hypotheses around animal intelligence is the idea of “one cognition”. This generally refers to the idea that intelligence results from linked skills. These skills are often selected for by a single specific evolutionary condition, such as social complexity, tool use, or brain size. This approach tends to lead to a focus on why/how intelligence has evolved in a specific species or group, often unintentionally framing it as an almost independent process, rather than viewing the whole evolutionary picture

Take language as an example. Human language was long considered by many to be a thorn in the side of evolution, as critics did not see how such complex communication ability could evolve spontaneously in humans. However language did of course not evolve spontaneously in humans, it instead would more likely begin with “words” developing from calls/sounds, and then progress from there. The question, therefore, should have been about how words, and then grammar, evolved from simpler communication, and about the more overarching evolution and use of communication across animals through time. 

One major hypothesis on the evolution of cognition is the Social Intelligence Hypothesis. This seeks to explain primate intelligence by predicting selection for intelligence in complex social environments, where it is important to be able to deal with the unpredictable, ever-changing social dynamics and interactions. Chimpanzees are widely studied, and show a great variety of complex cognitive capabilities, both social and physical, that would seem to support this theory, at least at a surface level. Yet contrary to the hypothesis, there are some tests in which less social species outperform chimps.

The experimental setup of Vlemings et al. (2010), showing how the tested primates were required to use an indirect reaching route to obtain easily visible food items. (Image Credit: Vlemings et al., CC BY-NC 2.0)

For example, when presented with an inhibition test in which an indirect reaching route (see right) is required to reach food that is easily visible, chimps and bonobos were outperformed by orangutans, which live more solitary lives. One potential explanation for this is that in a competitive social context, the patience and inhibition required to solve this problem may be maladaptive when eating socially and, effectively, competitively. In other words, rather than the social context selecting for general intelligence in all domains, it selects for the cognitive capabilities and behaviours which are beneficial in the specific context.

A similar variation can be seen when comparing dogs and wolves. While both are social, cooperative animals, wolves outperform dogs when required to cooperate with members of their own species. Conversely, dogs outperform wolves when cooperating with, and especially when following instructions from, humans. Once again, rather than selection pressures eliciting a general cognitive adaptation, it is context-specific to the species’ socioecology.

Human Error, and Frans de Waal’s Pool Party

In many cases, a lack of appropriate biocentric focus can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of observations and findings. Perhaps the example closest to home is that of cats and dogs. We often think of dogs as being the smarter of the common household pets, but why? Because they better follow human instruction and command? Surely this is just domestic obedience, and while cooperation is an important cognitive function, using it as a proxy for all-encompassing intelligence seems rather short-sighted.

An Octopus at Ripley’s Aquarium in the south-east USA (Image Credit: MusikAnimal, CC BY-SA 4.0)

In some aquariums, octopus are given the opportunity to show off their escape artist talents by extricating themselves from inside a glass jar, closed with a screw top. However, when they were instead presented with a transparent jar with a live food item inside, they failed to open it and retrieve the prey. At an initial conclusion, it seemed the octopus could only open screw-tops from the inside! However, octopus hunt primarily with touch and chemical senses, and so when the outside of the jar was then coated with a kind of herring-flavoured slime, the octopus had little trouble opening the jar and retrieving its meal. In this case, a minor change to the test, better accomodating the way the animal actually perceives the world, has a significant impact on the test’s outcome, and what we take away from it about the animal’s capabilities.

As another example, you may frequently see references to studies in which apes lag behind human children in social learning tasks. While this is an issue which has improved over time with greater awareness and understanding, it is nonetheless important to note that in many of these tests the children will have had the tasks explained to them and almost coaxed out of them by human researchers, perhaps even their own parents. Often no equivalent provision is provided for the apes, who instead are presented with minimal communication and instruction from an unfamiliar species and individual, often behind several levels of screens and caging. As Frans de Waal once put it, it is like throwing fish and cats into a swimming pool and believing you are treating them the same way.


Cognitive research, and our understanding of animal intelligence, have in many ways drastically improved over the past few decades. However, there are still steps to be taken. It is important that we try to spread the net of cognitive research more widely across the animal kingdom. By focusing on a biocentric, ecologically relevant approach to our understanding and testing of cognition, we can better grasp the depth, complexity and specificity of animal intelligence. That, to me, seems a worthy goal.


Ben Bluck is a (very) soon-to-be PhD student at the University of Southampton. He is broadly interested in almost everything to do with behavioural ecology and marine biology, especially sharks. You can find him being inactive on Twitter here (@anendemicshrub).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s