Image by: Athena Gubbe

Last week a student of mine uttered a classic piece of misinformation. She said, "Humans think before everything they do but animals act entirely by instinct." She then reluctantly added, "Right?"

I was shocked. I hadn't heard that nonsense spoken so clearly in quite a few years and I secretly hoped it had gone away. Plainly, it hasn't. Quite a few other students standing nearby were nodding their heads in agreement with her.

There are two ways to tackle this misconception. One is to dispute the way animals are often perceived: as instinct or reflex-bound automatons - cute little robots with tails. The other way is to take humans down a notch from our lofty perch as the ultimate logical, reflective, Aristotelian creatures, basking in free will, living outside the world of causality in which our lowly animal cousins toil.

Views like those are deeply and widely held and they are not easily challenged or surrendered. Yet, those of us who disagree with those views wonder how to go about calling them into question. I suppose we might approach people the way missionaries do, using every opportunity to engage someone in dialogue. But don't be surprised if people start avoiding you or find you a crashing bore. Enlightening the unwilling is a fool's mission. I'd rather concentrate on more efficient ways to get the message out there. I can think of two. The first is to include this topic in my teaching. Introductory Psychology is an apt place to discuss comparative intelligence. A room full of 18 year olds is ideal, and I get them 600 at a time.

The other way is to talk about the topic right here. I'm not sure how big this audience is (I've heard all kinds of estimates) but it's a heck of a lot larger than any enrollment I can reach standing in front of a classroom. If you've read this far, you'll probably stay with me for the next few paragraphs. I appreciate that.

So here's the simple version of what I want to say. First, non-human animals are a lot smarter, and less "reflexive" or "instinct-based" than most people think. I'm not suggesting you can engage your dog in intelligent conversation (although I believe you've got a better chance with your dog than with your cat). Kidding aside, there is a wealth of psychological research and opinion about just how advanced the cognitive abilities of many species really are. And we're not simply talking about chimpanzees or dolphins who can look back at you with those big soulful eyes. The data I have in mind involve species as unlikely as rats, pigeons, honeybees, crows, ravens, magpies (the last three collectively known as corvids), and even hissing cockroaches. All in all, these data suggest that labels like "purely instinctive" or reflexive don't begin to do justice to what non-human animals are capable of. Have a look at research and books by Sara Shettleworth, Frans de Waal, Oskar Pineno, or look at the research they cite. Better yet, do your own Google search on the topic of animal cognition.

Here's the other side of the coin, and it's a necessary part if you want the whole coin. Maybe we humans are not as smart as we think. Maybe we're a bit more reflexive or "instinct-based" than we'd like to believe. If my students are any indication, most people find this side of the argument more difficult to swallow. Telling someone that other animals are smarter than we think is usually fine with them. Most of my students love to hear "smart animal" stories. "Cool!" is their typical response. But it is far from "cool" to tell them that they (i.e., the species to which they belong) are not as smart or thoughtful as they believe. It's nearly as bad as telling someone that their home town or their country isn't Number 1. They kind of glaze over as you're presenting them with the evidence and it's not unexpected to trigger some outright hostility.

Take something as simple as Logical ability. We (humans) like to think we're the Kings and Queens of it. It's at the core of everything we do, right? Well...maybe not. Look at how quickly that feeling of superiority can collapse. For example, there is pretty clear evidence of Deduction in other species. Damn! There goes another one of those markers like Tool Use, that we also used to believe was our sole domain. That was before we had to acknowledge there was evidence of Tool Use and Tool Making in a variety of other species, extending well beyond primates.

Image by: Athena Gubbe

Now, something as complex as transitive inference , a bedrock of deductive reasoning (A > B; B > C; therefore A > C) also turns out not to be an exclusively human ability. Just a few decades earlier it was unchallenged dogma by Piaget and others that only adult humans were capable of logical transitivity. Not even humans under 7 years old were thought capable of it. Well, guess what? It turns out that Piaget and his minions got that one wrong. Along with very young kids, there's evidence of transitive inference (TI) in species including chimps, squirrel monkeys and pigeons, not to mention a demonstration from my own lab using rats. It's one more sign that human cognitive superiority is on shaky ground. We're neither as smart, nor as special as we'd like to believe. And believe me: You don't win any popularity contests delivering that message.

As the evidence of Deductive reasoning in animals began to grow, people often asked, "Do they do it the same way we do?" It seemed like a reasonable question until you realized that we didn't have a very good idea how we did it! It turns out that when you looked really closely, humans were not quite the cognitive giants we had been advertised to be. As Johnson-Laird & Byrne and Gigerenza & Todd revealed, our "logic," not to mention other evidence of human intelligence, routinely depends on shortcuts known as heuristics. Malcolm Gladwell's best-seller, Blink, makes a similar point. Those shortcuts we depend upon can masquerade as Aristotelian logic. But at their core, heuristics are not far removed from the dreaded "I" word: Instinct. Are we, gasp, just like those other animals we had been towering over?

That's a heck of a one-two punch. First we learn they're smarter than we thought and then we learn we may not be as smart as we think. Put them together and... Well, I'll let you do the math. But it's not really that bleak a picture. Certainly there are differences between us and other species (that's the part most people like). But there are also similarities - maybe more of them than we expected. This closeness sends a positive message: We are part of something bigger. We are animals in the company of other animals. Our family ties go well beyond the boundaries of our species. Forget the search for intelligent life in outer space. There are other intelligent species here on our own planet. Let's respect them for what they really are. It may be time for a reappraisal, both of ourselves and of them. At the least, it's pretty clear that superficial and arrogant judgments of our own superiority are less warranted than we ever believed.

Suggested readings:

Dess, N. & Chapman, C. Humans and animals: On saying what we mean. Psychological Science (1998), 9,156-157.

Gigerenzer, G. & Todd, P. Simple Heuristics that make us smart. Oxford University Press.

Johnson-Laird, P. & Byrne, R. - Deduction. Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.

Davis, H. - Transitive inference in rats. Journal of Comparative Psychology (1992), 106, 342-349.

Davis, H. - Deduction by children and animals: Does it follow the Johnson, Laird & Byrne model? Behavioral & Brain Sciences, (1993), 16, 344.

Pineno, O. The Thinking Rat: The New Science of Animal Learning.

Shettleworth, S. J. - Clever animals and killjoy explanations in comparative psychology. Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2010), 14, 477 - 481.

Wasserman, E. A., & Zentall, T. R. Comparative cognition: Experimental explorations of animal intelligence. Oxford University Press.

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