Two new studies of animal intelligence caught my attention last week because they proved that humans are no better than dogs and monkeys. This is something I’ve always felt to be true on an anecdotal level, and now cognitive science backs me up.
A researcher in Vienna trained dogs to sort photographs into two categories: pictures of other dogs, and pictures of landscapes. This is big news because it means that dogs not only recognize what’s happening in symbolic visual representations (photos), but they can also figure out how to translate an abstract concept (“dog”) into a category of pictures. Previously, nobody thought dogs could actually categorize photographs, or even categorize abstract concepts other than “food” or “enemy.”
The other study is even better, partly because it’s called “Basic Math in Monkeys and College Students” (oh, those zany editors at PloS Biology). In this study, cognitive scientists gave monkeys and college students a series of very simple tests to determine how quickly and accurately they could add up the number of dots on a screen. On average, the monkeys and students answered in the same amount of time. The students were 94-percent accurate in their answers, while the monkeys were 76-percent accurate. So monkeys are nearly as good as humans at adding dots, even without the benefit of a college education.
What struck me first on contemplating these studies is that cognitive science has taken us in an unforeseen direction. This is a field that promises to study consciousness as if it were a machine, to look at thoughts as electrical impulses and biological structures rather than sublime metaphysics. It would seem therefore to run the risk of de-humanizing us, of converting all our crazy ambivalent feelings into mere blips on a chart.
Instead what cognitive science has done, at least in these studies, is show us how deeply connected we are to the living creatures around us. By breaking our thought processes down into their component parts — pattern recognition, counting — we are able to see that the building blocks of thought are not unique to homo sapiens. Dogs and monkeys are doing this shit, too. In fact, there is a monkey out there who can actually add better than a college student (some of the humans did in fact score lower than some of the monkeys in the study).
So what do we do now that we know dogs and monkeys are capable of human-like intelligence? Shall we test more animals, and discover what we already knew about elephants and dolphins having language? I hope so. If nothing else, it will teach humans to be a lot more damn humble about our supposed niftiness.
Of course there are dangers in taking this scenario too far. Instead of seeing ourselves as having something in common with animals, we might use this information to make animals into better slaves. Science-fiction author David Brin’s Uplift series is partly about this. He describes humans using biotech and genetic engineering to “uplift” chimps and dolphins, giving them human-equivalent intelligence. The creatures become fully intelligent but socially they remain second-class citizens. The two transformed species are in a constant struggle to prove themselves to the humans, and often fail: Brin portrays the dolphins as liable to slip back down into incoherent animalness when threatened.
Still, we have not yet appointed ourselves uplifters. Humans are at a moment in our history when we are still in awe of animals who can think the way we do. Now we have to figure out the appropriate next steps. Obviously, we need to test more animals for intelligence, using a variety of methods.
Probably the most oddly hopeful news to come out of all this is the fact that both these tests were done without any killing or brain-invading. The researchers who did the dog test even invented a special paw-operated touch screen computer for the dogs to use. I like that. Not only have we discovered that dogs are like us, but we’ve invented the first dog-friendly user interface. What next? Wii for dogs? That would pave the way for true inter-species bonding. •
Annalee Newitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a surly media nerd whose cat is unfortunately not among the mentally-gifted creatures who can add, sort, or even recognize food.
A PITHY GUIDE TO RIDING THE WEB
R2D2translator.com: Yeah, you read that right: R2-D2 translator. Useful? Absolutely not. Accurate? Who knows! But I’m feeling a sophomoric, Apatowian giddiness as I type in “let’s get naked” and “pass the bong,” then hit “translate” for playback. My co-workers aren’t even aware that R2 is actually whistling sweet nothings at me. Oh, my … back to work.