Testing animal intelligence: A dumb question?

Myth Debunked– first featured in the Times of Malta – September 21, 2019

We have all used the saying “memory like a fish” or “crafty as a fox” without much of a second thought. Humans have established a hierarchy of Earth’s intelligent beings and, of course, we sit at the pyramid’s top, but how do we assess how smart something is? In humans, intelligence is sorted into many categories from emotional intelligence to creative thinking, but can we use these same measurements to determine how smart other species are? Well, humans have certainly tried. 

Researchers have studied animal intelligence by comparing relative brain mass, using problem-solving tools or task-switching exercises, although these kinds of tests are now falling out of favour by scientists. Using humans as a benchmark for other organisms just limits our own perception of how we can exist on this planet. Animals which we think are intelligent, are usually either charismatic to us or are easy to study, in short, the animals that people have cared to observe. Most of us have seen videos of crows using tools, or gorillas being taught sign language, but there are also pigeons that can detect cancerous growths in biopsy pictures as effectively as trained oncologists.

In humans, intelligence depends on where and how you live, and the available opportunities. One quote dubiously attributed to Albert Einstein says that, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”


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