Post No.: 0433
Just some musings today as a shape-shifting frisky furmiliar who often takes on the form of a human being. As you might guess, taking on these multiple perspectives is going to have some profound effects on my mind.
…I’m wondering are humans truly smarter than all other (known) animals, as in non-human animals, in every single way? Are humans always better at learning than other animals in the animal kingdom?
Well some skills take humans a long time to learn whereas other animals learn them much faster, such as navigating by the stars or the Sun. It therefore depends on what specific innate predispositions a certain animal has to learn something, and there are many things that humans cannot learn without extensive instruction or the use of special equipment that other animals will easily learn whilst in their infancy – including navigating by detecting electric or magnetic fields, or sensing infrared or ultraviolet light, which humans cannot innately do at all. (It has been claimed that (some) humans possess limited magnetoreception, although even if true it’s nowhere near strong enough to navigate with.)
Humans also don’t have adaptive camouflage, gills, wings and many other things that other animals have that humans might call a ‘superhero power’! One special ability of furry dogs is that they can smell people’s butts coming from a mile away; although I’m not saying this as a boast because it’s a curse. :S Woof!
An important question to ask is – is it fair to test other animals according to human measures and conceptions of intelligence? For instance, relatively more of a dog’s brain is dedicated to the sense of smell than vision compared to with humans, thus testing a visual task with dogs and comparing the results with humans wouldn’t be fair. Another animal species may be communicating in sophisticated ways but we just don’t understand their language? We might therefore assume they’re dumb when we’re the dumb ones for not understanding them(!) Experiments conducted inside a lab might not be as fair as in more natural settings for them either? So whenever humans underestimate the intelligence of other animals, it’s often the human failure to come up with appropriate experimental designs. There are still countless things to learn from nature. (Biomimetics is about looking at nature for answers to human problems.)
Clever Hans, a horse, didn’t demonstrate arithmetical or general knowledge intelligence but he did demonstrate social intelligence by being able to read subtle and involuntary body language and intonation cues from his human trainer.
Many animals employ deceptions and cons, they exploit and might even kidnap others (e.g. male sea otters kidnapping pups so that their mothers give up their food in return for their pups!) and conduct in infanticide (e.g. male dolphins killing calves who they know aren’t their own!) – whether to improve their chances of getting food, hiding from predators, mating or raising their own offspring. Some call such behaviour sly but others might call it smart. (However, whenever animals deceive members of their own species – does that make that species brainy for using cunning tricks or brainless for falling for them?!)
Some animal species can learn through social learning – copying others is usually safer than experimenting with our own trial-and-error. Like humans, if they see another member of their group doing something and they’re fine, and especially if they get rewarded for it, then they’ll copy that behaviour. Working together is often a sign of great intelligence too because it requires empathy or at least coordination. It does depend on what prey are available in the environment but predators that work together can take down much larger prey than they can alone (e.g. a lonely lioness could perhaps take down a 120kg buffalo calf about 20% of the time, but a pride of five lionesses could probably take down a 600kg buffalo adult about 30% of the time, which overall makes cooperation worth it). Ants are a collective, social family of creatures, and they are successful enough to colonise every continent on Earth except Antarctica. Some estimate that there are currently one quadrillion ants on Earth.
No matter how intelligent or unintelligent you might think they are – all animals are intelligent enough to survive in their natural habitats, otherwise they wouldn’t be alive there, logically. And microbes dominate the life of this planet, and probably everywhere else in this universe where there’s life present too, hence organisms don’t even need to be considered intelligent to collectively dominate, or to be able to survive in the most extreme environments, including outer space. But since humans, who are complex organisms, have deliberately sought to survive in a wide range of environments, this immense adventurousness and curiosity has intrinsically shaped the breadth and depth of human intelligence and capability. New, stimulating and challenging environments encourage adaptability and greater creativity, and in turn greater intelligence.
Yet since environment and intelligence are intrinsically linked – it may be a concern for the future of the human species due to many people not needing to, for instance, hunt or even cook, or navigate without gadgets or even walk much, in the modern world in order to survive. The vast majority of people don’t invent or create as much as buy someone else’s inventions and creations to make their own lives easier. If an ancestral person wanted a spear, he/she would’ve had to learn how to make one. But a modern human in a capitalist world doesn’t need to know how to build a kettle or toaster to use one. Humans rely on each other so much, which is okay as long as people understand that they evidently do.
Having said that, advanced technologies bring with them alternative complexities and required skills, such as computing. Albeit it’s arguable whether this might pigeonhole humans, as a whole, further and further over time into a species that’s reliant or dependent upon an electronically-assisted habitat?
We hold different innate predispositions for learning different skills, thus learning likely works differently in different contexts. For instance, listening to and speaking a language is different to reading and writing the same language, and learning a natural language is not the same as learning mathematics. Different brain regions and associative neural networks are primarily utilised for different tasks; although no single region alone performs all functions for a given ability.
Brain regions evolve in conjunction with body part evolution. For instance, the ancestors of humans losing their tails meant losing the corresponding brain regions for moving and sensing with it too, or more probably these regions just got re-purposed for doing something else. Brain regions also evolve in conjunction with cognitive ability evolution. For example, the ability to process language and the specialist brain structures that help process language most likely co-evolved. The mind/brain and the rest of the body also co-evolved in accordance with the environment. For example, human bone densities evolved for what humans mostly do under planet Earth’s level of gravity.
‘Embodied cognition’, which was explored in Post No.: 0301, is about the (non-neural) body being integral with the (neural) mind/brain. Minds/brains and bodies are also shaped by, as well as in turn shape and utilise, the external environment. We naturally use our bodies and (re)structure the environment to promote better thinking itself – the process of writing notes, drawing sketches and building prototypes that we immediately inspect as we think helps us to better think and are a part of the thinking process too. In other words, effective thinking is rarely accomplished just inside one’s mind – it involves the body (e.g. talking out loud or gesturing) and the environment (e.g. using tools and computers) too. So the body and environment kind of becomes an extension of our working memories, or computing caches as it were.
The ‘naked brain fallacy’ is believing that the brain is alone responsible for all intellectual achievement when in fact the body and environment play key roles too. So to improve your mental abilities – remember to employ your body and the environment too. But perhaps we shouldn’t rely on external aids too much, such as calculators or photographs, when we should be able to accomplish a task without the help of them, such as working out a simple sum or remembering a few words or numbers – for we’ll be, or become, personally inept regarding these skills if we fail to practise them. Likewise, we’ll become physically unhealthy or we’ll needlessly harm the environment itself if we drive everywhere even to places just within a couple of kilometres away.
Human brains possess a lot of neuroplasticity when they’re born. On the other paw, this is not to say that human behaviour is infinitely malleable. There are human species-wide limitations. If you see that other animal species have their limitations then remember that humans are just another animal species too, who possess their own capabilities and well as limitations. There are some things that other animals can do that humans cannot (or quite so easily) do, and vice-versa. And although it never becomes impossible for a person who’s still alive to learn new things or to change his/her ways, there’ll be a point where the time and effort required would be too unrealistic or impractical hence there’ll be some real, persistent individual differences that won’t seem to disappear even with extensive training. Dogs have an important socialisation window when as puppies too.
The brain and body are capable of extraordinary feats and there’s still much to discover and learn about their potential capacities and disorders, but whatever we find or reach must still conform to what’s possible within the laws of physics i.e. some magical or super powers will remain as fiction (at least in their imagined form factor); although maybe some others might not? For instance, even if humans could ever fire bolts of lightning from their hands, electricity will, on average, travel along the path of least resistance hence it’s not going to be possible to direct a bolt of electricity wherever one simply chooses (unless one fires an insulating tunnel around each bolt like the plastic sheath around an electrical cable perhaps?) But Tummo meditation visualisation techniques can apparently train the mind so that one can increase one’s body’s temperature at will so that one can function even in very cold conditions with no clothes on, which is pretty amazing!
Woof. By using the Twitter comment button below, please tell us what do you think about the abilities of other animals compared to humans? Where do you think are the limits to innate human abilities? And from Ant-Man to Wonder Woman, do you think your favourite superhero character could ever exist in reality? (Asks a purported shape-shifting creature(!) Hmm.)