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Measuring Intelligence and Decoding the Animal Mind

Is it possible to define animal intelligence, and if so, how? Are smarts purely inherent and genetic, or can they be obtained over time and/or expanded upon? What can we hope to achieve by determining the various forms (emotional, logical, instinctual, etc) of animal intelligence? These are some of the questions that twentieth century scientists, behaviorists, and theorists continue to struggle with. Animals, once thought of as “robots programmed to react to stimuli but lacking the ability to think or feel” (Inside Animal Minds, 42) are now considered capable of thought, language, and even emotion.

The Western perception of the natural world, as well as the pervasive, underlying propensity to manipulate, dominate, and domesticate other species, has been largely shaped by early Judeo-Christian influences. During the formative period of Christian tradition, many believers struggled to understand not only the nature of the universe but human nature as a whole. Christian doctrine continues to reflect the human tendency to both recognize—and fear—the total unpredictability of nature, as well as the inherent desire to gain control over a violent and chaotic environment.

From this discovery, new questions have arisen concerning broader issues:  The process of decoding, examining, and understanding animal intelligence is riddled with complexities and setbacks, including the validity of testing for intelligence, the mistreatment of animals despite our growing comprehension of their intelligence, and the danger of anthropomorphism. Finally, I would like to explore the way in which these distinctions become more vague when we study animals so unlike ourselves—animals that are less easy to manipulate or train yet remain ineffably similar to us. Why are we inherently able to recognize their similar emotional qualities, yet unable, or too afraid, to express what connects us to them so deeply?

Intelligence is defined as “The capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of activity…” (Webster Dictionary). In his recent experiment with fruit flies Dr. Dukas challenged this definition by reporting surprising evidence that, despite their tiny and simplistic brains, the flies were able to learn new things rapidly through trial and error experiments. (Lots of Animals Learn, but Smarter Isn’t Better, 1). He hypothesizes that learning new things, versus relying on preprogrammed knowledge, is possible but not always beneficial as it “takes more upkeep, burns more fuel and is slow off the starting line because it depends on learning — a gradual process — instead of instinct.” Yet intelligence, true intelligence, consists of something more than the ability to build skills or reason. Logical, instinctual and/or learned intelligence is irrefutably different than emotional intelligence—in human terms, it separates classes of animals into “higher” and “lower” categories. In general, humans appear to be drawn to animals that exhibit high amounts of emotional intelligence. These animals are often social mammals who, like us, live in communities, acquire skills and memories over time, and appear to not only communicate but to feel strong emotions such as love, jealousy, rage, and sorrow. We are easily able to recognize these emotions in “higher animals.” In contrast, we are generally less attracted to “pre-programmed” species such as insects and amphibians, which seem to primarily act out of instinct.

In 1990 the psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey loosely defined the term emotional intelligence as:

the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and…the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.


The average dog owner would not hesitate to say that their pet is able to perceive and generate emotions. Nevertheless, emotional intelligence in animals is far less concrete and highly debated in the scientific world. Assuming animals are expressing emotions or have the mental aptitude for “higher” abstract thoughts without physical evidence is still considered by many scientists to be unprofessional and embarrassingly anthropomorphic. “Intelligence tests” consist of an assortment of challenges that trigger emotional responses, as well as tool making, self recognition, and problem solving in “higher” animals. In the past decade alone researchers have discovered a surprising amount of evidence suggesting various forms of intelligence. The African Gray Parrot is now famously capable of counting as well as recognizing color, shape, texture, and size. It even has an abstract concept of zero, understanding when a toy is taken away or subtracted from a group. (Inside Animal Minds, 42). Bonobos acquire and create language, develop long term, often bisexual, relationships, and are the only other animal proven to have sex purely for pleasure. In captivity under specific circumstances, they can also make tools that are almost identical to those created by our earliest common ancestor, the Austalopithecus Africanus. Other apes, such as chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans can recognize themselves in mirrors, a skill once believed unique only to humans. Some apes, such as Coco, have even been taught a primitive form of sign language, although this endeavor remains under sharp skepticism, and often contempt, by most scientists. Still, one must ask, why would a chimpanzee benefit from being able to recognize himself in the wild? And if absolute numeracy is a distinctly human invention, what need would African Gray Parrots have for it and how does their ability to count prove their intelligence?

Another major problem scientist’s face in attempting to ascertain animal intelligence is our inability to communicate directly with other species. How can find conclusive evidence of intelligence when we cannot ask questions? This issue is especially dominant when observing animals that do not imitate or learn similarly to ourselves, like dolphins and elephants. Through teaching apes sign language, some behaviorists hope to solve this problem. Others would argue, however, that this just hinders progress. Our inborn desire to unearth similarities between “us” and “them” rather than studying them as entirely separate, specifically evolved beings can be problematic. Whatever the result of man-made intelligence tests, these experiments often follow the same flawed route—they compare animal and human intellect, rather than observing it as something separate and unique. This problem is, perhaps, inherent. In her book, Animal, Erica Fudge states, “We judge things on the basis of whether or not they are like us…” (Animal, 138). She goes on to explain that we must instead begin to “think about animals as animals” (Animal 159).

Nevertheless, it can be said that these controversial intelligence tests are crucial to our understanding of the animals evolution: it may not be especially significant if a Parrot can distinguish between red and green blocks in captivity, but from this scientists now know that in the wild they are able to differentiate ripeness and texture in fruit, as well as memorize which foods are dangerous or unpleasant to consume. Their advanced mathematical abilities provide evidence that they are able to estimate amounts of food and communicate these amounts to others over long distances. Correspondingly, determining that apes, dolphins, and elephants are the only animals besides ourselves that are able to recognize themselves in the mirror helps us to understand their sense of self and awareness as individuals.

Our fascination with emotionally intelligent and/or similar animals, Fudge argues, is fueled by more than our interest in their mental capacities. It is also fueled by our desire to recognize and identify our similarities and our dissimilarities, as well as a deep longing for communication. Nevertheless it is extremely important to recognize that “what is revealed in ape language and many animal intelligence experiments…is not so much the animals capacity, or incapacity, as our inability to look beyond our own frames of reference” (Animal, 138).

German philosopher Walter Benjamin describes a form of “disgust” which stems from our fascination and similarity to the animal, a fear which can only be overcome through domination. There is an undeniably mysterious, impenetrable nature to the animal mind—especially those we find emotionally similar to ourselves. Our inability to grasp exactly what lies beyond their eyes is exactly why Benjamin and Fudge believe humans (consciously or unconsciously) often find animal intelligence uncanny or unsettling. Benjamin also theorizes that “in an aversion to animals the predominant feeling is fear of being recognized by them through contact” (Animal, 7). According to this theory, because humans cannot grasp what animals do and do not comprehend, we are less afraid of what similarities we find in them, as we are of the one’s they find in us. It is more than just shared intelligence that “reconnects us to something old and fundamental inside of ourselves” (Elephantoms, 1). It is an illusive emotional quality, an elevated awareness, that some define as a “wordless brotherhood with the non-human; a lost intuitive understanding.” Nonetheless, others argue we are merely projecting our own traits, fears, and behaviors on animals that we cannot hope to truly understand.

Wild Chimpanzees, our closest living relative, have been observed to have an established a form of democracy, enabling the lesser Chimps to choose which male would dominate and guide them throughout the rain forest. In her first book, Jane Goodall states:

“Within the community a male hierarchy, ordered more or less in linear fashion establishes social standing with one male as the alpha. Females have their own, somewhat confused hierarchy…most disputes within the community can therefore be solved by threats rather than actually attacks” (52).


Chimps have been known to wage wars, and commit heinous, senseless acts such as the decapitation and murdering of infant chimps from within their own groups. They have also been observed to tickle, laugh, chase, summersault, and pirouette around one another. A chimpanzee with a stomach ache will often go out of its way to select plants which have medicinal properties. They make and use a variety of tools, such as sticks to extract termites from their nests, and rocks to break hard nuts. In the Chimpanzee we see ourselves, a close relative, and an ancestor.

Intelligence tests work well with chimpanzees. Because they have evolved in similar climates and circumstances, their behavioral patterns, basic logic, and emotional reactions are relatable. It is easy to read their expressions and gestures. But not all animals are this easy to decode. Interestingly, some of our most complex and exciting relationships exist with animals that did not evolve from the same evolutionary “branch,” as us and that are, in fact, completely physically dissimilar to us. Elephants serve as an excellent example of this. The elephant has a very large and highly convoluted neocortex, a trait also shared by humans, apes and certain dolphin species. Their brains are larger than those of any other land animal. Their variety of behaviors include those associated with grief, learning, mimicry, play, a sense of humor, altruism, use of tools, compassion, self-awareness, and memory. Nonetheless, unlike other species associated with these behaviors, much less is known of elephant behavior and brain function. Language, for instance, is a highly debated possibility. Furthermore, these massive herbivores do not use tools, cannot learn sign language in captivity or communicate in tones we can hear, in fact: “Elephants communicate with infrasound…but we didn’t learn this until 1983. We are now only beginning to understand the significance of chemical communication…” (When Elephants Weep, 116,). Yet they it is easy to recognize the way they display an equal, if not exceedingly, unique emotional capacity: “Elephantine joy can only be recognized as joy because it resembles human joy…yet we should not assume it is identical to human joy” (116). Unlike primates, they cannot emote through facial expression: instead, when faced with great joy (the birth of a family member) or sorrow (death or trauma), they secrete tears from both their eyes and ducts near their ears. Still, their large brains have an immense aptitude for memory and emotional bonds, comparable to our own.

Elephant’s relationships to humans is complex and extreme. They are perceived throughout the world in numerous lights—as gentle giants, as food, as foes, as friends. The Masai tribe, for example, lives amongst them and consider them to be the only animals with souls. In Western culture, on the other hand, elephants are not individual, they are our belongings and exist solely for our entertainment, however beloved they may be. Interestingly, despite the fact that elephants will go out of their way to tread on human observers in the wild, they often act out in captivity. Moss explains that the “human-elephant relationship in captivity is one of dominance, with the human the dominant creature. If the elephant sees the opportunity to even the score, it will….this is why several keepers around the world are killed each year, one of the highest per-capita fatality rates in any occupation” (Inside the Animal Mind 207). Still other relationships exist—some behaviorists have given captive elephants paint brushes and canvases, claiming to find a form of communication through elephant paintings. In Elephantums the author describes numerous parents of children with down syndrome who have reported their children hearing or feeling elephants when they were nowhere nearby, only to later discover that each time the child attempted to communicate this awareness, they were located on a long forgotten elephant graveyard. South African poachers hunt elephants for survival and for ivory, viewing them as dangerous and wild adversaries. And recently, elephants have been known to attack humans and even entire villages, as well as other animals quite unexpectedly and without being provoked. This behavior has never been documented before and, according to elephant behaviorist Moss, “elephants have nothing to gain in the wild by killing an animal.” Yet to those who simply recognize their rapidly decreasing land and their diminishing numbers, it seems quite clear why elephants would appear to feel threatened, even when seemingly malicious or without cause. From this perspective, their sporadic behavior does not seem so bizarre, and a scientific explanation is unnecessary.

Elephant social structure is vastly different from our own: groups consist mainly of adult females, and they travel in matriarchal family cluster, expelling bulls when they hit puberty. The stereotype that “elephants never forget” is partially true. The matriarch figure will remember entire landscapes, short cuts, water holes, and graveyards for an entire lifetime—she will guide her family over thousands of miles. They are also able to remember estranged family members from years past—greeting them with gentle trunk taps affectionately and excitedly before moving on.

Females are pregnant for over a year, and will only raise one infant at a time. They communicate over long distances and have been described by researchers as more altruistic than our own species. A reported example of selfless behavior took place several years ago when,

“A great African Bull Elephant was down on his side and either unwilling or unable to stand up. Elephants will always die soon if they cannot stand up. In this case, even a large crane was unable to pull the elephant up on four legs. But, as it happened, a group of smaller, Asian elephants was led past the downed African elephant. These Asian elephants immediately approached their “cousin” and prodded him into standing up, then supported him until he had the situation under his own control.  “(Inside the Animal Mind, 198)


Elephant graveyards are also a unique aspect to elephant society. These burial grounds seem to stem not only from their incredible long term memory, but also from the immense emotional connection elephants have with one another. There have been countless reported cases of mother elephants attempting to carry their dying young to shade or water, persisting and holding the entire group back for days, even after the infant is dead. In doing so, the mothers will lift the baby by their trunks or body and support them on both tusks, always keeping their head low to the ground so as not to drop the baby from too high up. In one such case, after the infant elephant died, the family “gave up but did not leave. [They] buried her with leaves and earth in the shallowest of graves. They stood vigil through the night, then began to move off. [The mother] was the last to leave…she reached behind her and gently felt the carcass with her hind foot repeatedly” (Inside the Animal Mind, 205). This behavior has never been observed in Chimpanzee or Bonobo communities. If a close family member becomes sick or dies, a sibling or child chimpanzee may try to help or appear lethargic, listless, or depressed. Eventually, however, the group will move on with or without the grieving family member, and will not return.

In another burial ceremony Moss once again observed elephants covering a deceased family member’s body in twigs and leaves. She writes,

“Although they pay no attention to the remains of other species, they always react to the body of a dead elephant…They stop and become quiet and yet tense in a different way from anything I have seen in other situations. First they reach their trunks towards the body to smell it, and then they approach slowly and cautiously and begin to touch the bones, sometimes lifting and turning them…they run the trunk tips along the tusks and lower jaw and feel in all the crevices and hollows in the skull” (Inside the Animal Mind, 206)


While Moss tentatively hypothesizes that in doing so the elephants are trying to recognize the individual, other behaviorists such as Joyce Poole have seen elephant families return year after year to graveyards. Each time the closest family member to the deceased will approach the carcass first—even when all that remains are the bones—and she will always be the last to leave.

In the 1970s at Marine World Africa in the United States an Asian elephant named learned how to break open or unlock several of the pieces of equipment used to keep the shackles on her feet secure. The most complex device was a ‘brommel hook’, a device that will close when two opposite points are slid together. Bandula used to fiddle with the hook until it slid apart when it was aligned. Once she had freed herself, she would help the other elephants escape also (The Octopus and the Orangutan: More Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence and Ingenuit). In captivity, crude tool making has also been observed in elephants, and while observing tool making in great apes was enlightening due to their similarity to our early tool making ancestors, it can be argued that this behavior in elephants is of far less signifigance. What is of much more conaequence is attempting to understand their language as a separate, fully evolved, highly intelligent species.

When observing emotional behavior in animals, should anthropomorphism be considered such a desperate error? As fellow intelligent animals, how long will it take for us to accept, rather than fear, animal awareness? Too often we make the mistake of comparing animal intelligence to our own, forcing them to mimic our behaviors in order to determine their mental capacity. Through this subtle form of domination we lose the chance to study animal behavior as something separate and complete—not fractured or lesser in comparison to our own.

Fittingly, in her article on animal intelligence tests, Verlyn Klinkenborg states:

“Research on animal intelligence…makes me wonder what experiments animals would perform on humans if they had the chance… I believe that if animals ran the labs, they would test us to determine the limits of our patience, our faithfulness, our memory for terrain. They would try to decide what intelligence in humans is really for, not merely how much of it there is. Above all, they would hope to study a fundamental question: Are humans actually aware of the world they live in? So far the results are inconclusive.”










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