Animal Intellect Part I – Water World
Animals aren’t the crude beasts we once thought they were; they know things. We said well, they can’t make tools, but then we saw them making tools. So we said well, they don’t have complex social structures (they do). Well, they can’t think, they can’t work things out. No? Let us begin in the water, where we all came from.
Aquatic mammals, the whale, dolphin, and porpoise, are the most intelligent creatures in the sea. At least, we’ve studied them a lot more. They have very big brains, one of our yardsticks of measure, since we also have big brains. Part of the problem in determining intelligence is that the example we began with was our own, so we had a biased sample right out of the gate. This was a breakthrough in interspecies communication, but we need to cast our nets more widely.
Archer fish are nature’s snipers. Their targets are insects or the occasional small lizard, perched on an overhanging rock or leaf. The roof of the mouth is grooved like a channel. When it pushes up its tongue and slams its gills shut, a projectile of water shoots out like a bullet, accurate up to five feet. Their large eyes must take in a lot of visual information; the size and distance of the prey, and where it will fall in the water. Shoot too hard and you knock it to some other fish. That’s not all. Because the fish is below the surface, it has to calculate the refraction angle of the water. You know how when you stick a pole in the water, it seems to be bent. That’s a lot of calculatin’.
The coral grouper uses sign language to signal other predators where prey is hiding. Its cronies aren’t other groupers, though, they’re the moray eel and another fish called the wrasse. When the grouper sees a potential client, it first does a shimmy described as the Harlem Shake, meaning “Game on!” Then it hovers vertically over the hiding spot, nose down. They cooperate to their mutual benefit.
Of the other creatures of the deep, the cephalopods have been by far the most promising. These are a class of mollusks including, squid, octopi, and cuttlefish. From them we’ve learned another way to calculate intelligence: by the number of neurons, usually in the brain. But in the cephalopods, 60% of the neurons are in the tentacles. When they latch onto something, they’re sensing the size, body temperature, and taste of it. There is precedent for neural networks outside the brain, in humans. We have millions of neurons in our central abdominal region, near the solar plexus. So there may be truth behind the expression “having a gut feeling.” Come to think of it, I know quite a few people who think with their stomachs, and I frequently do it myself.
Sy Montgomery’s studies with octopi reveal they have long term memory. For some reason, an octopus named Truman took a dislike to one of the interns, and using his siphon, drenched her every time she came near the tank. Then she went back to school. Several months later she returned. Truman had not squirted anyone since, but as soon as he saw her he soaked her again.
I saw an excellent PBS program on the cuttlefish. They’re even better than the octopi in the ability to instantly mimic not only the color, but the texture, of the background. At one point you see a cuttlefish hovering, eyeing a small crab on a rock. Rings of light begin streaming from its posterior to front, one after the other, accompanied by a voom voom voom voom sound. It was like a Pink Floyd concert, and then zap! Dinner this evening will be mesmerized crab. It takes a lot of processing power to change your appearance while putting on a light show. Now a new study has just been published, by researchers from Woods’ Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and the University of Washington. They found that the skin of these creatures contains gene sequences usually expressed only in light sensing retinas. They can see with their skin (the cuttlefish, not the researchers). The mimicry of various colors alone becomes even more impressive when we learn that cephalopods are color-blind.
Alright, what does all this mean? We are confronted by a number of questions. What is intelligence? What is thinking? What is consciousness? We know that animals can learn. We’ve taught rats to navigate a maze, and Fido to roll over. That doesn’t mean they’re smart. There is a species of coral, which, when the seaweed growth upon it begins to choke it off, emits a chemical signal that’s picked up by a local species of fish that loves to dine on seaweed. That’s just instinct, though, isn’t it? One of the reasons I chose the word ‘intellect’ in the title rather than intelligence, is that intellect implies knowing. My Webster’s says: “the power of knowing as distinguished from the power to feel and to will.” The coral knows, probably from millions of years of natural selection. So we call it instinct, “a response to environmental stimuli,” again from Webster’s. I can think of another response to environmental stimuli — looking at a beautiful sunset.
In Part II I want to explore the creatures of land and air, and again we’ll marvel at just how sophisticated their brains may be. I want to touch on this idea of self-awareness, and whether that is an accurate measure of intelligence.