Animal intelligence video notes, 2/23/12

(revision in progress)

Controversy after all these years

This video has a running debate on animal intelligence—simple or complex.  The issue is intelligence -- what is it and who has it?  Does it vary by species and how would we know.  Descartes (1641) pointed out performances that seem intelligent may not be unless we know how that intelligence came about.  Performances due to instinct, for example, were not a mark of intelligence whereas the same performance done by reasoning might well indicate intelligence.  (My (JL) example along these lines is human language – all normal children in a normal environment, whether their IQ is 75 or 175 learn the basics of human language.  Yet apes, dogs, and birds given the best treatment humans can devise never acquire human syntax and are celebrated when they reach a 'vocabulary' of a three year old.  Does this mean those animals are unintelligent?  Not necessarily – they just don't have the adaptations humans have for acquiring language.)


Some people fail to get this point -- you cannot determine 'intelligence' just from observing performances/behaviors. You must know how that behavior developed in that individual. Often it is important to know how it develops in the species and related species.


Many psychologists from the earliest experimentalist, e.g Thorndike,  to Professor McPhail in the video believe trial and error is the primary mode of learning in all species -- with some allowances for mental or cognitive maps and imitation or other socially mediated learning (Such social priming effectively reduces the number of trials needed to reach a given level of learning by reducing the possible trials available to the organism.).  Also see Alan Alda :Primate video , as well as my 'trial and error' notes on this.


Keep in mind that once the capability to transmit information from one individual to the next evolves, initial trial and error learning can spead quickly. This might occur consciously as in human teaching or automatically via social priming and so-call mirror neurons.

Overview on "intelligent" behavior

Observing some activity, we may assume it arises from some combination of the following.  In every case, I think, one must know the history of the behavior before we can make an assessment of how "intelligent" it is.


Instinctive behaviors are mediated via genes and development.  They appear as specific reflexes or severe constraints on trial and error.  If instinct provides most all the organism needs to adapt, there's little need to attribute intelligence to the individual. Think of a chick getting out of an egg!

Trial and error

Probably the most important process, dependent on initial conditions including available repertoire of possible trials. It is most important, in my judgment since the initial learning of anything probably arises in this way -- even though most individuals may learn via a social process -- teaching or social priming...In many cases the possible trials are structured by observation, thus shortening the number of trials to engage in.

Specific learning adaptations, e.g. mental maps

Many species seem to have a natural ability to locate themselves in space and learn where their food, home, enemies are located.  Bird song and human language may be other examples.

Insight (Wolfgang Kohler , 1887-1967)

Probably based on prior trial and error or other learning.  Its characteristic is that manipulations of representations within the body enable forseeing the consequences of actually doing something without doing it.  The advantages of forseeing the consequences of an action before actually doing that action are obvious.

Observational learning

Often socially mediated, this is an efficient method of taking advantage of another's experience.  It is very difficult to establish what sort of information is being acquired.  Priming may play a big role here.  Social priming activates some elements of a situation – actions, agents, objects – that in effect limits trials  (or focuses attention) to the activated/primed elements.


"an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics"

Can animals be sad?  Have fun?

Goodall --animals not just people in funny bodies

We hear more about success than failures  (Professor Evan McPhail)

"Many secretly want to believe their pets are smart."  But look at the example of Pippin -- packing up and going away?

(we could use a word to describe a similar phenomenon – assuming some primate ability is unique to them.)

You might recall the story of Clever Hans as well? 

 Trial and error

(Pippin example) -- makes errors till one response works by chance previous experiences or weighted by.   A sequence of behaviors may just reflect a sequence of trial and error learning success.  Don't assume all trial and error learning requires a trainer – in the usual case, success or failure is determined by the organism's action on the environment.

It is the most important method for gaining new knowledge across all vertebrates. (even in humans, who learn from others, someone probably initially used trial and error and the results are transmitted culturally.)

(JL note mirror neurons on this topic)

JL walking

Mental (cognitive) maps

Distinct from trial and error (taxi cab license example, rats in a maze, elephants in desert, humming bird, Clark's nutcracker bird)

Blocked route demonstration with rat; also see Kelloggs' silent video with Gua and Donald.

Misleading contrast between T&E and MM as if one precluded the other rather than complementing knowledge.

Hippocampus functions in mental maps in mammals

(Some animals appear to have an increase in hippocampal size as their learn more and more!)

Is there any generalization of this ability beyond finding one's way and objects?


Goodall's comments on chimps; but see Darwin on tools in "tool notes."

Tool use

In Piaget's TGE, young children around stage 4  --8 months- of the sensorimotor period begin to use one object to get to another.

Kohler's "insight" experiments

Can chimps imagine a solution to get the banana with available "equipment?"

"She only needs to execute plan in her head and the banana is hers."

Do ravens and crows have insight as well?

Raven gets the fish but is it a result of a history of trial and error?  "Surely it is insight!"  

BUT even chimps need extensive experience with tools ahead of time -- a cumulative effect of lots of previous trial and error learning.

In order to have convincing evidence, we need to see the animal solve a problem the first time.  Heinrich's raven experiment suggests a degree of insight.

Recent Science paper claims tool "creation" by crows.

Intimidation --chimps and tool use?

stones, sticks thrown

instruments of "deliberate intimidation"

(Why do they do that? ---  comment on testosterone, possible effects on mating success)

cleansing functions of leaves -chimps

obtaining food


(many examples of chimp tool use)


controversy is long standing


What counts as imitation?

Some alternate social contributions to learning.  Social priming can be a powerful force, increasing the probability of certain actions, e.g. attending to objects, moving limbs a certain way, that greatly reduces the number of trials of trial and error learning.


Orangs doing the laundry

(What can they be "thinking" of??)

"true imitation"

should be an immediate response to previously undone action

dolphin examples?

Apparently relates its body image to the human body plan. Yet are these actions also previously put together?

human example (my daughter vocal imitation)

forming mental concepts

shaping tree concepts in pigeons

(Professor Pierce and his students - no "equals" for the bird, no area comparison for students)

JL Try comparing our right and left hemispheres on these tasks.


Boyson on chimps   "Sheba" (also on  Primetime Primates with Alan Alda)

Pepperberg on Alex the gray parrot.  What is Alex really doing?  Is it really counting or a kind of immediate estimation based on perception, not intellect?  See Alex video notes.

Language extends number ability – perception to cogntion


Animal calls about predators

Chickens, meerkats, etc but all are closed systems--restricted to a very limited repetoire (unless we humans intervene creating a human based code for them.)

Following human commands

Questions, actions based on human-based codes (HBC)- Alex, Pippin.

Dolphins following 60 signs to form 1000s of "sentence" with sign order as a relevant factor.  (NOT LIKE HUMAN LANGUAGES WHICH ARE HIERARCHICAL.  SEE LANGUAGE VIDEO NOTES.)

Why are some animals so smart?

One common hypothesis, born out by Dunbar's research on primates (see TO) is that social animals have relatively large brains -- chimps, dolphins, wolves, crows.