On Animal Intelligence

New research shows that we have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence. Primatologist Frans de Waal explains in the Saturday essay for The Wall Street Journal. This example on elephant intelligence is striking:

Experiments with animals have long been handicapped by our anthropocentric attitude: We often test them in ways that work fine with humans but not so well with other species. Scientists are now finally meeting animals on their own terms instead of treating them like furry (or feathery) humans, and this shift is fundamentally reshaping our understanding.

Elephants are a perfect example. For years, scientists believed them incapable of using tools. At most, an elephant might pick up a stick to scratch its itchy behind. In earlier studies, the pachyderms were offered a long stick while food was placed outside their reach to see if they would use the stick to retrieve it. This setup worked well with primates, but elephants left the stick alone. From this, researchers concluded that the elephants didn’t understand the problem. It occurred to no one that perhaps we, the investigators, didn’t understand the elephants.

Think about the test from the animal’s perspective. Unlike the primate hand, the elephant’s grasping organ is also its nose. Elephants use their trunks not only to reach food but also to sniff and touch it. With their unparalleled sense of smell, the animals know exactly what they are going for. Vision is secondary.

But as soon as an elephant picks up a stick, its nasal passages are blocked. Even when the stick is close to the food, it impedes feeling and smelling. It is like sending a blindfolded child on an Easter egg hunt.

On a recent visit to the National Zoo in Washington, I met with Preston Foerder and Diana Reiss of Hunter College, who showed me what Kandula, a young elephant bull, can do if the problem is presented differently. The scientists hung fruit high up above the enclosure, just out of Kandula’s reach. The elephant was given several sticks and a sturdy square box.

Kandula ignored the sticks but, after a while, began kicking the box with his foot. He kicked it many times in a straight line until it was right underneath the branch. He then stood on the box with his front legs, which enabled him to reach the food with his trunk. An elephant, it turns out, can use tools—if they are the right ones.

Worth reading in entirety.

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