The Smartest Creatures on Earth

The difference between you and Chewbacca: Are humans the brainiest creatures on the planet? Here's what separates us from other animals.

Is Taking the Initiative a Sign of Intelligence?

Dolphins and lawyers have creativity in common

The ability to use intelligence in creatively adaptive ways has profound implications when it comes to capably navigating life’s little challenges. Especially if you are a dolphin trying to keep your room clean – and looking to get paid for it.

Housekeeping in an oceanarium is no simple task, and usually requires a whole team of water quality specialists working behind the scenes to keep show stadium pools at their sparkling best.

In an experiment now famous (as well as somewhat infamous) among animal trainers, one oceanarium decided to enlist the aid of a bottlenose dolphin to help in the task.

The dolphin was asked to scour the length of its rocky-bottomed pool for bits of debris inadvertently left behind by tourists, and then hand over each piece of trash to a trainer in exchange for a fish snack reward.

The trainers knew, of course, that any consistently reinforced behavior tends, over time, to become reinforcing itself. In theory, the dolphin would eventually keep its pool clean for the same feel-good reasons we humans tend to tidy up after ourselves in our own homes.

But the dolphin housekeeping union must have gotten wind of the plan.

After weeks of training, the dolphin began spontaneously collecting submerged trash at every opportunity. Each time a trainer happened to pass by, the dolphin dove out of sight, resurfacing moments later with some item for the trash bin to earn a fish.

It wasn’t too long before trainers began noticing something odd.

The dolphin kept collecting fragments of plastic trash bags – eventually to the exclusion of all other types of trash that were plainly visible at the bottom of the pool.

Then the trainers noticed something else.

There were no trash bags visible in the pool. Ever. Where were the bits of plastic coming from?

Turns out the enterprising animal had come up with a get-rich-quick scheme of sorts. Had, in fact, found a large plastic bag and wedged it tightly into a rock crevice well below the waterline and out of sight of trainers. Anytime a trainer passed by the pool, the dolphin would dive down to its hidey hole, tear off a bit of plastic, and turn it in to the trainer for a paycheck in fish.

Clever dolphin. Good thing the IRS doesn’t audit marine mammals.

Actually, far from running a scam, the dolphin had simply used lessons from past experience and applied them to current problem solving – in this case, how to snack on-demand rather than waiting for a human to initiate a training session full of earning potential.

In the business world, we humans call that taking the initiative, while in the world of cognitive science, we call it – intelligence.

The ability to transfer past experience into current problem solving payoff isn’t always as straight-forward as it might seem – even for us humans.

My wife, as a general contractor, is an expert in nearly all things mechanical, and she was once hired by a highly successful trial lawyer to troubleshoot a malfunctioning string of Christmas lights. When she asked the attorney whether he had checked his breaker box to see if a switch had been overloaded, she was astounded at the response.

“Breaker box?” he asked. “What’s that?”

In an age of specialization, the lawyer’s response speaks more to our compartmentalization of knowledge than to any indication of overall intelligence or its lack.

Interestingly, cognitive science’s forays into questions relating to intelligence suggest that just how smart we are has more to do with how we use what we know than it does with what it is we know in the first place.

Recent studies of video gaming (“Brain-Changing Games” by Lydia Denworth, Scientific American, 2013), have found that certain types of games help gamers hone a variety of skills that can be used to master other kinds of tasks – and even boost their performances in car driving, reading, and essay writing.

Denworth quotes Daphne Bavelier, a neuroscientist who studied gaming and cognitive learning at the University of Rochester and the University of Geneva: “That means that gamers ‘learn to learn.’ The ability to apply learning to broader tasks is called transfer, and it is the holy grail of education.”

And, in all likelihood, of intelligence.

Just the kind of intelligence an entrepreneurial dolphin needs to make a career of room service. Or that someone who shines in the courtroom could use to eventually learn how to troubleshoot an electrical problem with the Christmas lights.

Maybe Mark Twain was right when he remarked, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2013

The Smartest Creatures on Earth