Is our intelligence up to the job?

Frans de Waal, the dean of all primatologists has spent all his lifetime watching and testing animals, especially chimpanzees, but many other species as well. At the same time, particularly in his later years, he has been trying to get across to a reluctant world the idea that many other species besides ourselves have intelligence. He’s also condensed all that into a book Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?

It is not just that other animals arrive at intelligent decisions — which 50 years ago was put down by biologists solely to instincts — but that they seem to be able to theorise in the same way we do. It has even been shown that some species have some notion of counting and arithmetic. Dog owners who know their animals very well can easily tell when their pet is pausing to do some problem solving.

A great many species, if not all of them, are just as intelligent as we are relative to the specific confines of the environment in which they live. It is only in this regard that we can claim some merit. Strictly a savannah-only species 200,000 years ago, our immediate predecessors suddenly acquired some new brain genes which caused us to do some unusual things such as wandering into new habitats such as sea shores and mountain tops — eventually, of course, leaving Africa altogether.

Whereas other top predators are totally dependent on populations of specific prey species, we have become a general ;purpose species. We are able to turn from one food source to another and to become comfortable in a wide variety of distinctly different habitats. No other animal could possibly survive in an equatorial rain forest in New Guinea as well as in the Arctic north. It’s true that we didn’t quite manage to survive in Antarctica once that continent became too cold but we are managing to do so in recent years!

Yes, we’re entitled to say that we have a far more versatile intelligence than other animals but is it totally up to the job relative to the specific confines of the earth in which we now live? That still remains to be seen.

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