What defines an “Intelligent” species?

I’ve always struggled with how to classify a species as intelligent or not. It must be simple and applicable across any expected type of life, not just the ones we have so far encountered on earth.

I would normally classify YouTube as the antitheses of a thought-provoking blog but was stunned the other day when my son sent me a link to “I’m a Stupid Cat” that got my mind racing on this subject.

It is the typical “funny cat” video set to music and lyrics (language warning) and although it is not precisely anti-cat propaganda it does highlight the innocence of a domesticated cat’s life.

A screen capture of the YouTube video “I’m a stupid Cat”

Hidden amongst the profanities and humorous anecdotes was a startling observation that “[cats] don’t even know they’re going to die.”

And it was precisely this quote that struck a chord with me.

Is it this quality, an understanding of time and personal mortality, that defines an intelligent species?

It is also interesting to note that our species is taxonomically known as Homo sapiens, Latin for “knowing man”.

A little research turned up an article on The Daily Galaxy entitled “The Planet’s Other “Intelligent” Species: Do Dolphins Have a Sense of the Future?” At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the Dolphin could very well [have] got the upper hand on her human trainers… or pets?

All the dolphins at the center are trained to retrieve trash that has mistakenly fallen in to their pools. Upon seeing a nearby trainer, they are to take said trash to the trainer. In return, they receive a fish for their cleanliness.

However it seems that Kelly has found a loophole in the system, and is exploiting it to interesting ends. She hoards her trash, underneath a rock at the bottom of her pool, and when she sees a trainer she goes down and removes a piece of paper or trash to get her fish. However she won’t use all her paper at once, instead she holds on to them for the future.

It is an interesting behavior, considering that it is very much like humans storing food for the winter; it displays an awareness of tomorrow.

The Planet’s Other “Intelligent” Species: Do Dolphins Have a Sense of the Future?

I’m not discussing the intelligence of this animal or that but each entire species and it is not useful to quote a single specific example such as the dolphin “Kelly” above, otherwise one could use a human baby as proof that Homo sapiens do not pass this test.

The quality must be inherent in the mature species and only absent by exception.

Although René Descartes is credited as the father of analytical geometry (the bridge between algebra and geometry), crucial to my work as a spatial scientist, he is perhaps best known for the philosophical statement:

“Cogito ergo sum” (French: Je pense, donc je suis; English: I think, therefore I am) – in part IV of Discourse on the Method (1637)

Which also harks back to the classification of our species as “Knowing Man”.

So…is the comprehension of time and mortality (or more colloquially: do they know they’re going to die) a valid way to classify a species as intelligent or not?

…and what does this mean for us and these other intelligent species? Are they to be protected? Are they exempt from use as a source of materials or food? And are they also unsuitable for use as involuntary manual labour or entertainment?

6 thoughts on “What defines an “Intelligent” species?

  1. “I’m not discussing the intelligence of this animal or that but each entire species and it is not useful to quote a single specific example . . .one could use a human baby as proof that Homo sapiens do not pass this test.”

    This argument is flawed. While the average adult human being exhibits a general awareness that there is a future, “Kelly” exhibits a much more practical application of planning for said future. Which species, then, is the more intelligent? The rodents who stockpile for they know not why, or the Homo cogitens who know but fail to do?

  2. I just watched a friend wrestle with a very sick, dying dog and the idea of putting him down at just the right time. I’m always left weepy by this thought of having to end an animals life, but I do think it’s completely on the humans. Seems any recognition of the imminent end that is coming is put upon them by their owner. When we anthropomorphize our pets we only sadly breathe life into our own grief. That’s a far cry from them being an intelligent species. So the real question is, when do we know whether they are intelligent or whether we are reading too much into something?

  3. Pingback: What defines us as a species « One Lifetime

  4. Leave it to me to monkey wrench the question, but Putney is right. To base the decision, we must first accept homo sapiens as on one of the uppermost rungs of the food chain. By the criterion you have set, rodents are intelligent (they actually are very). They hoard food for winter.

    Bears and all other hibernating species prepare for hibernation by diet changes before the physiological effects of their sleep cycle begin. This is a weaker argument.

    I do not see either instance as a cognitive indicator of mortality. It is life-sustaining behavior, but not indicative of recognizing mortality.

    What is, however, is the self-imposed segregation of dying animals from pack/herd environments, as well as the self-sacrifice when faced with pack/herd danger. For me, it is a more logical argument to uphold the recognition of mortality.

    As to your ethical questions, I go back to the food chain. Man’s ethics concerning the food chain is inherently flawed. We kill much more than we eat. We dispose of environments which sustain our food stores. We break all the natural rules of the animal and plant kingdoms. We produce chemicals to kill pathogens, which are merely microbial life forms, and use pack mentality to do it. We call it “research”.

    Considering the foregoing, I do not see man as ethically responsible enough to judge the value of other animals on the basis of intelligence. Instinctively, the animal kingdom has far outpaced man in the use of pack/herd technique and mentality, which over time proves more ethical to the species than anything man has offered to date.

    For me, the better question is: What will finally break man’s vermin status on the planet?

    I am quite the tool hound. Hope you like wrenches.

  5. Good post. It provokes thought on the ethics of eating / killing certain animals. We wrote an essay for a NY Times contest on the subject. We found classifying other species’ value to be difficult and somewhat self-centered.

So what do you think?

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