Intelligence of Organisms

Throughout history, the intelligence of organisms has always been questioned. How something that is considered alive thinks, is famously what has given humanity power, leadership, and the ability to reign supreme over all other species…

I wrote this article for Bloom in Doom magazine, as can be seen here: https://www.bloomindoom.com/environment/intelligence-organismss

Illustration by Alicia Hayden.
Illustration by Alicia Hayden.

We consider ourselves an intelligent species. Our ability to problem solve, build and create, have leisure time and interests, hobbies and determination, perspective and creativity, emotional connection and social interaction, perhaps for no gain other than pleasure are all seemingly linked to our “higher intelligence”. It has allowed us to rise through the ranks, from a terrified crouching mammal, at the mercy of the elements and the carnivorous predators roaming the landscape all those years ago, to the explosion of variety we are today, encasing ourselves within steel and glass, looking down upon the plains and forests we once called home. 

We used our tenacity to climb over other species, efficiently populate and bend nature to our will. And yet, it would seem that as we grow ever more confident in our skill and abilities, and as we develop greater machines, taller towers, and networks spanning the globe, we begin to grow bored with who we are, and search for signs that there is another in this universe, who would match us in the intelligence we revel in. We search for alien life amongst the stars, we build robots, and try to make machines that are a fraction of the self aware that we are, and we try to teach our pets to understand our language. The key here is that we relate all that we search for back to our own intelligence…and why wouldn’t we? We are the only reference we have when it comes to this level of thought, so where else would we look? In order to find others who think on our “level”, we have to abandon the structure of our own thought, and instead look at it from a completely different perspective. 

There are famously many animals considered “intelligent”. Elephants, for example, are considered intelligent, based on the large size of their brains in relation to their body, or the amount of folds or wrinkles shown on a recorded brain scan (a greater number of wrinkles suggests a larger surface area and thus a greater capacity for information carrying, as it allows for a greater amount of neurons – the specialized cells in our bodies that transfer information), and also their ability to empathise with each other, and with their young, and in some cases even humans.

They have also shown incredible problem solving capabilities; but interestingly shown this in the form of insightful problem solving, a longer and more subtle process than spontaneous problem solving – which is what humans had used previously to test animal intelligence.This is another example of humans referring back to themselves in order to test levels of intelligence. Another animal considered intelligent is the Octopus, shown to have a high problem solving capacity, in the wild and in captivity, and has also shown signs of empathy, to both humans and it’s on species. These are animals that have shown examples of intelligence in the same fashion we as humans show it, and thus are what comes to mind when this question is asked. 

We look to apes and animals that look and act somewhat like us to think as we do, and indeed apes and monkeys have shown brilliant problem solving skills and similar behaviours to humans. But perhaps there is far too much of an emphasis placed on the appearance of animals, and the link that this has to their cognitive abilities.  We associate creatures that look human-like with greater levels of intelligence than perhaps a fish or less human-like animal. We hold others to the “norms” of humanity, forgetting that there are trillions of other ways in which intelligence can be measured. 

Language is often considered to be an indicator of higher intelligence. The ability to understand, and differentiate between the messages shared by others is thought to be a sign of self awareness, indicating high levels of thought and opinion. It has been suggested that  intelligence is exploitation of information to perform better. The more efficient the collection of data, the better the learning will be. Data here could refer to the location of resources, mates or any information about the animal’s environment. Access to this data could provide individuals with reproductive and survival advantages, allowing them to perform better in their environment. 

Humans have seemingly mastered the art of language. Other species with highly sophisticated forms of language are now having their communication systems discovered and studied, such as vocal communication in cetaceans and the use of movement to communicate in bees and ants.

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