Douglas Adams in his classic comedy sci-fi radio series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, claimed that mice are the smartest creatures on the planet, dolphins the second most intelligent and humans the third.
Adams was joking but in fact he may not have been so far from what scientists now believe.
For many millennia, we humans considered ourselves superior. Even when Charles Darwin pondered on the possibility that the differences between humans and other animals weren’t black and white, and that the latter may have a sense of self, the popular belief persisted.
Humans believed the evidence was incontrovertible – we have large brains, and a huge capacity for learning, reasoning and solving problems. We’re creative, we invent, make tools and we think abstractly. We use language, tackle complex ideas, we are self-aware, fall in love and are capable of deception. We also have the ability to overcome our natural shortcomings, so while we may not be able to fly or build skyscrapers with our bare hands, we have invented the tools with which to do so.
However, it is equally true that other creatures can do many things that we can’t – we can’t jump 1,000 feet our own height. Fleas can. We can’t become dormant, we can’t rotate our heads like owls, we can’t run at 60mph like cheetahs, lift weights 20,000 times heavier than we are like ants. We can’t ‘see’ in the dark like bats, detect accurately where sounds are coming from like dogs, nor can we climb, swing and jump from tree tops, or make a web like a spider.
So is it likely that other creatures are equally intelligent but in different ways and that humans have misunderstood animal intelligence?
A group of researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia thinks so. They have argued that humans aren’t much smarter than other creatures – and that some may be even brighter than we are.
Two of the researchers, Dr Maciej Henneberg and Dr Arthur Saniotis, have co-authored a book called The Dynamic Human.
“For millennia, all kinds of authorities — from religion to eminent scholars — have been repeating the same idea ad nauseam, that humans are exceptional by virtue that they are the smartest in the animal kingdom.”
“However, science tells us that animals can have cognitive faculties that are superior to human beings.”
The researchers said the belief in the superiority of human intelligence can be traced back around 10,000 years to the Agricultural Revolution, when animals were first domesticated. Our idea of superiority was reinforced with the advent of organized religion, which emphasized human beings’ superiority over other creatures.
“The belief of human cognitive superiority became entrenched in human philosophy and sciences,” said Saniotis, adding:
“Even Aristotle, probably the most influential of all thinkers, argued that humans were superior to other animals due to our exclusive ability to reason.”
But reasoning, the Adelaide scientists believe, is just one form of intelligence.
“The fact that [animals] may not understand us, while we do not understand them, does not mean our ‘intelligences’ are at different levels, they are just of different kinds,” Henneberg, told the Huffington Post.
Scent markings can’t be interpreted by humans but “may be as rich in information as the visual world,” he says.
Killer whales share a complex language of their own, and dolphins have individual names – just like we do – based on whistles and clicking signals.
“This means that dolphins have a concept of ‘self’ and special others,” Henneberg said.
Elephants, he said, grieve their dead and have excellent memories. Beavers are able to dam rivers and build underground homes. Weaver birds produce intricate multi-storey nests; the list goes on.
So, it seems likely that evolution has allowed each species to develop skills and intelligences to suit their environments, meaning we don’t have to weave webs like a spider and ants don’t need satnav to reach their destination.
That may be true but the trouble is that animal intelligence is measured against human intelligence, so we may never know exactly how smart they are, meaning that Douglas Adams might be right – mice may be brighter than us.