I have a liking for informed debates, and a peculiar interest in trends in public opinion on scientific topics. As such, in late 2013, I found myself paying attention to a particular online debate in a nondescript forum. The question of the topic was: were any animals on Earth, other than us, intelligent in the sense we know it? There were the usual number of misperceptions presented, but the debate was even more confused than usual due to a deep divide among scientists such that even the most learned comments from either side had no prospect of reaching a consensus. I understood the root problem all too well. Below I will attempt to describe it for you as briefly as I can.
The scientists who measure animal intelligence have long split into two philosophical camps. One sees animals as reasonably easy to rank, as long as sufficient time can be devoted to experimental design, testing, and great care is taken to adjust for different species from different environments having different strengths and weaknesses. The other holds that these differences are just too large, and that it is likely that other species are intelligent in ways we cannot even imagine. To them, even doing nothing can be deemed intelligent, as in the famous quote by a renown humourist.
“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”
Douglas Adams – Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
However, such differences in approach are not, in themselves, a barrier to progress. The blockage is due to the low degree of communication between these two groups. While such a divide persists, a resolution to the question is impossible, but I couldn’t help wondering: what would happen if we confine ourselves to the work of the first group of scientists? Here is my question.
Does the Earth contain another species that measures equal in intelligence to us by all metrics that might reasonably be applied to both?
Sure, some measures, such as tool use, can’t be fairly used on animals with very different dexterity, and cetaceans will always rank lower in this than primates, whether more intelligent or not. Aquatic animals need to be streamlined in order to move about efficiently. Fortunately, such should be the exceptions not the rule. For most measures, like language, we could postulate them to co-evolve with other needs, such as vocal control.
If we take the traditional view, the ‘no’ answer to the above seems so obvious as to require no explanation, but this is one of the biggest mistakes you can ever make. In science, as in mathematics, common sense often proves wrong, yet has continually held up progress in a field for centuries. Here is what we do know…
Every non-human animal that we have ever had the chance to properly assess has fallen short of our intelligence in rather fundamental ways. That includes every land animal that has shown even the glimmer of prospect of proving our peer, and most marine mammals that have ever been held in captivity. Effectively, only for the great whales has testing been inadequate for the determination in a group displaying significant indications of intelligence. Even here, recent decades have produced sufficient data on their behaviour in their natural habitat for us to make a reasoned guess.
Historically, there was a period when humpback whales seemed to show promise. Their songs were so long and complex that it placed them far apart from any other animal. Their vocalisations were similar in those regards to the oral storytelling of humans. Hope faded that this may be evidence of sapience when their simple structure was revealed, and it belied the possibility of language like syntax. The death blow came when it was shown that the very longest songs contained no more information than the very shortest. Other species seemed less promising from the beginning, especially considering their simpler way of living, but there was an exception.
One species of great whale was harder to study that the others because, despite being an air breathing animal, it spent three quarters of its time half a kilometre or so beneath the ocean surface. Furthermore, its lifestyle was at least as complex as the humpback. That animal was the sperm whale. No academic paper or review I read seemed to disqualify any of the great whales from full sapience as we know it, but the more I read the less promising the possibility looked – with that one exception. The longer I studied the problem the more strongly I came to a peculiar conclusion. What actually was known of sperm whales suggested that whales really could have very human-like characteristics. Why then did they only appear in this one species? I began to suspect that sperm whales were the only species that could be as intelligent as humans; that their example simultaneously proves their candidacy, and discounts others as possible contenders*. This website tells the story of how I came to that conclusion, and how the evidence for it is much stronger than you could possibly suppose.
The greatest thing that could ever happen to humanity is to find we are not alone. Conversely, we really do need to know if we can rightfully claim sole guardianship of Earth. A sapient species must realise proof needs work and careful observation. From what I have discovered, much more must be done before we can be confident of the answer. I hope to convey to you my passion on the topic, and welcome all interest. In the end, the proof or disproof may fall to one of you who reads this. If so, whichever way the answer falls, I will be grateful that you finally put me out of my misery…
*If you are disheartened by the thought of only one cetaceans species being our peer today then think of this: there is much evidence that humans only acquired language recently, possibly only 40,000 years ago. This may have resulted in a sudden new ability to process abstract thoughts, so a few other cetaceans might be in that same ‘just add language’ category as we were 50,000 years ago.
or, for those in an extreme hurry, skip to