Friday, November 10, 2006


Some thoughts on that old intelligence debate

I've been reading this great blog, Alphapsy, that deals with cognitive psychology and behavioral science. A recent post, discussing the social organization of apes, got me thinking, especially this bit at the end:

"The existence of theory of mind in chimps is a topic of vigorous debate; I embrace the conclusions of animal psychologist Michael Tomasello on this issue [snip]; what Tomasello has shown experimentally is that Theory of Mind is sometimes present in chimps, but only in situations where 2 chimps have competing interests, and never when they are in a position to cooperate (an opportunity they don't catch). In other words: you may have Theory of Mind in chimps, provided that there's no cooperation involved."

All too often when discussing intelligence (or consciousness; often the two terms are treated as synonymous) in animals, people speak of it as if it was a binary state. Either the animal has "intelligence", or it lacks it entirely. The idea that "intelligence" could be a summed function of a number of distinct cognitive modules, and that an animal species can possess some but not others, seems to me like a much more viable approach to the problem. Bound to the "all-or-nothing intelligence" paradigm, people have a tendency ascribe actual consciousness (sometimes human consciousness) to animals that demonstrate some elements of it, such as a "theory of mind", the ability to feel pain, or a social hierarchy.

I don't think saying that a chimpanzee, dolphin, or dog "is intelligent" is a meaningful statement. Sure, they all show cognitive abilities that we can find in children (human infants, usually, are the ones being compared to animals in discussions). But their intelligence is different from that of the human, and compared to the human (in a very specie-ist way) it is inferior. To my mind, it is better to think in terms of partial consciousness or intelligence, and it would be interesting work to investigate how the elements of intelligence form a whole.
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