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Is Animal Intelligence Like That of Humans?

February 2014

Steve Gillman the ChimpanzeeHow similar are the thought processes in animals to those found in humans? There has been some recent research into this, which I report on below. As for the photo here, it is me as a chimpanzee. My wife found a website somewhere that allows users to upload their photos of and then blend them into the face of a chimp. It's a nice reminder that we are animals, although since other animals have never created software like this perhaps we have something special.

On the other hand, we may not be quite as special as we like to think. Apparently, according to the latest research, lizards have more creative problem-solving ability than previosuly thought, and baboons can use analogy. We'll start with a look at the lizards.

Smart Reptiles

It has been generally assumed that higher-level mental abilities like creatively solving problems is limited to humans and perhaps a few other mammals (dolphins, apes) and birds (crows and blackbirds). But Duke University biologists Manuel Leal and Brian J. Powell discovered that lizards have greater creative problem solving ability than previously thought. They reported their findings in a recent issue of Biology Letters, in a paper titled, "Behavioural flexibility and problem-solving in a tropical lizard." Here is how they summarized their findings:

This lizard shows behavioural flexibility across multiple cognitive tasks, including solving a novel motor task using multiple strategies and reversal learning, as well as rapid associative learning. This flexibility was unexpected because lizards are commonly believed to have limited cognitive abilities and highly stereotyped behaviour. Our findings indicate that the cognitive abilities of A. evermanni are comparable with those of some endothermic species that are recognized to be highly flexible, and strongly suggest a re-thinking of our understanding of the cognitive abilities of ectothermic tetrapods and of the factors favouring the evolution of behavioural flexibility.

Tropical lizards in Puerto Rico were the subjects of the study (species Anolis evermanni). Researchers put worms under blue discs and watched as the lizards found ways to get to the meal. A majority of the lizards learned to get to the worm by either biting the disc or prying it off the surface.

After the researchers added discs of other colors (they had a yellow edge) the lizards initially continued to search the blue discs where they presumably expected to find the worms. But in time two out the six lizards did check out the other discs, and found the worms there. This was considered an example of creative problem solving, an ability which is apparently not limited to birds and mammals.

The Use of Analogy by Baboons

BaboonWe don't really know how long humans have been using analogies to understand things. But the common assumption among linguists and scientists in general has been that our use of analogy started with the use of language. And the assumption underlying that one is that language is required in order to think in terms of analogy. However, shedding knew light on animal intelligence and the nature of analogy, some research with baboons says the assumption that language is required may not be necessary.

(Flickr photo by Ewan Roberts)

This short report on some of the research done with baboons is from an article on

A cat takes care of a kitten and a bird feeds fledglings: although the context is different, these two situations are similar and we can conclude that both cases involve a mother and its offspring. For a long time researchers believed that this type of analogical reasoning was impossible without language and that it was restricted to humans or, at best, great apes that had been taught a language. However, two scientists, Joël Fagot of the Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive (CNRS/Université de Provence) and Roger Thompson of the Franklin & Marshall College in the United States, have demonstrated that monkeys are capable of making analogies without language.

The two researchers carried out their experiment on 29 baboons (Papio papio) of variable ages, which could freely perform the proposed exercise (this represents a large number of animals for this type of experiment). First of all, the baboons were shown two geometric shapes on a touch screen, for example two squares. After they touched one of these shapes, two other pairs of shapes appeared on the screen, such as: a triangle and a star for the first pair and two identical ovals for the second pair. To successfully complete the exercise and be rewarded, the animal had to touch the pair representing the same relation (of identity or difference) as the initial pair (here, the two ovals).

In other words, the baboon had to detect relations between relations, which is the definition of analogy.

Six of the 29 baboons were successful at correctly completing the task. When researchers did the experiment again a year later, these baboons re-learned the process more quickly than during the initial learning period. This, according to the researchers, suggests that the animals remembered the earlier tests.

It is interesting that baboons can think like humans in some ways. But then we shouldn't be surprised by that if we spend much time with our pets or even just watch nature documentaries. Clearly there are some similarities in how we and other animals think. What is more interesting (at least to me) is that these tests seem to show that language is not necessary for the use of analogy. We sometimes spend so much of our time thinking with words that we forget there are other ways to think.

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