Stories of clever animals abound, from pigs playing video games to monkeys trading mobile phones – now tests reveal that they don’t merely act on instinct but can think flexibly, like us
BARELY a month goes by without a new tale of animals behaving brightly. There are orangutans that craft umbrellas out of plant leaves, and chimps that employ stones as hammers with a technique that is uncannily similar to one seemingly used by our Stone Age ancestors. In Bali, long-tailed macaques steal from tourists and then exchange their swag for edible rewards – and they have learned to target high-value items as if they appreciate the basic principles of economics. Hyenas employ the art of deception, with low-status individuals sounding an alarm call that scares their rivals away from a tasty carcass. In one UK zoo, several parrots curse copiously, apparently to entertain visitors. Pigs have been taught to play video games, rats can learn the rules of hide-and-seek, and let’s not forget the golfing bees.
Superficially, these behaviours certainly seem smart. But what do they really reveal about animal intelligence? The human mind is remarkable for its innovation and problem-solving across many different domains. Do other animals have the same sort of brains, or are their headline-grabbing antics no more than party tricks that require little complex reasoning?
Scientists have begun devising elaborate tests to tackle this question. Like our own IQ tests, they allow researchers to assess the capacity of an animal’s mind, compare the mental abilities of different individuals and identify factors that lead to superior performance. The findings have been a revelation. They provide some fascinating insights into the anatomy of intelligence. And they may even shed light on the evolutionary origins of our own minds.