04/08/2013 10:53 am ET Updated Jun 08, 2013

Animal Smarts

Accumulating evidence suggests that animals are a lot smarter and humans are a lot dumber than we previously thought.

A recent study shows that the short-term memory of chimpanzees far exceeds what we can expect from ourselves. An average chimp routinely breezes through an experimental memory paradigm that most humans (except autistic savants) badly flunk. Chimps easily recall the location and sequences of nine numbers randomly displayed all across a computer screen -- something you can't do.

And it turns out that dogs are really great at facial recognition -- a complex task that still drives computers crazy. It has long been known that dogs are sensitive readers of human faces and emotions. Now it has become clear that they are also skilled at the even more difficult task of correctly identifying dog faces.

Why so difficult? Because of their long history of selective breeding, dogs are the most heterogeneous of species -- encompassing a size range from chihuahua to great dane, a shape range from dachshund to mastiff, plus all sorts of hairiness, and various ear and muzzle conformations.

As a result, there would seem to be no uniform dog face. But a study using standardized pictures found that dogs do indeed successfully distinguish the wide variety of dog faces from the wide variety of other animal faces.

The more we study animal intelligence, the more intelligent they appear to be. We discover surprising abilities in tool making, forethought, communication, navigation, mourning the dead, and self-awareness. And it's not just primates that have succeeded in evolving high intelligence. Who would have guessed that dolphins, and parrots, and even the backboneless octopipe could be so smart? It takes clever investigative tools to bridge the communication gap and appreciate that animals can even do some intellectual stuff better than us.

We are more comfortable with an anthropomorphic view that most highly values those aspects of intelligence that resemble our own and lend themselves to easy measurement using human standards. We can barely imagine the animal talents that may lie hidden from us simply because we can't speak the language of their intellectual accomplishments.

Stephen Jay Gould was a very smart guy, but I think far off base when he assumed a sharp break between us and other species. Gould believed in human exceptionalism -- believing the odds against developing human intelligence to be so great that we represent a vanishingly rare and very special accomplishment.

Darwin saw it just the other way. He was keen on showing evolutionary continuity -- that animals had much more consciousness and intelligence than we credit them and that humans are much less guided by rational thought than we would like to think.

I think the passionate arguments favoring human exceptionalism are a last-ditch effort to preserve our ever fading narcissism against repeated reminders that we are just tiny creatures living on a small planet within a bewildering large universe that may itself be just one relatively brief quantum bubble among uncountable other universes.

What is left that is special about us, if not our minds? Preening our intellect and privileging our consciousness is a vitalist quest to find something that is non-material in our mental make up -- the last secular vestige of the soul.

I find it arrogant and parochial to suppose that intelligence is a special commodity in any way restricted to humans. Given enough time and the proper conditions, the development of intelligence is predictable and inevitable. Run the experiment 100 times -- sooner or later you will probably evolve a creature with intelligence at least equal to ours every single time, even if the kind of intelligence may differ widely in its particulars.

Sixty five million years ago, a really smart species of dinosaur was beginning to evolve into what became our current intellectual niche. The accident of a radical climate change wiped them out and opened up a space that mammals quickly filled. And, as Darwin noted long ago, if man were suddenly eliminated from the current scene, some equally smart primate would soon evolve to take our place.

So, what is a fair evaluation of human intelligence. At our best, we live up to Shakespeare's:

"What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! in form and moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a God! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!"

We can share proudly in the grandeur of a species that has produced Confucius, Thucydides, Socrates, Lucretius, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Cervantes, Galileo, Newton, Goethe, Darwin, Einstein, Joyce -- and so many other intellectual noblemen. Despite our diminutive stature and limited senses, we have used reason and ingenuity to plumb the ineluctable mysteries both of the vast universe and of the unimaginably minute reaches of the quantum world. Although we will never figure out everything, we certainly have figured out a lot.

But there is one essential thing we never could get right -- it does not seem to be within the gift of human nature to control our appetites and passions. Our acquisitive and aggressive animal instincts were crucial to survival in the rough and tumble of life in our hunter/gatherer/scavenger past. It is now clearly maladaptive for us to be so short-sighted and selfish, but we can't seem to outgrow the instincts that got us here.

We are now busy overpopulating, denuding, and polluting our little world and mindlessly fighting among ourselves for a bigger share of its diminishing pie. The human animal is paradoxically capable of the grandest insights and the dumbest decision-making.

Rather than focusing on our special human skills, we would do well to recognize our equally special human limitations. Rather than disparaging the intelligence and threatening the existence of the other animals sharing our crowded planet, we would do well to protect them and learn to respect their special intellectual and social skills -- which sometimes exceed our own.