Thursday, June 18, 2009

More on Animal Intelligence

An article titled “Native Intelligence,” in a special Winter 2009 issue of DISCOVER magazine about the brain, showcases the smartest animals in all the major groups (mammals, birds, insects, etc.). One general principle mentioned is, "Group living promotes a quick mind," because social interaction with other members of one's species requires flexibility and responsiveness. Being a social species isn't an absolute requirement, of course; some solitary animals are also conspicuous for their intelligence. Dolphins, border collies, pigs, and chimpanzees won't surprise anybody. Crows, among birds, are well known for their cleverness. I've also seen parrots celebrated for their smartness, although not in this article; apparently they can actually learn context-appropriate application of words rather than just "parroting." Horses, though? It turns out they're smarter than their reputation suggests. They can "be trained to pick the bigger or smaller of two objects," and wild mustangs can remember the location of water and food sources in their desert environment. Maybe Jonathan Swift's civilized horses in GULLIVER'S TRAVELS aren't so far-fetched—or the centaur-like aliens in one of John Varley's novels.

Bees? The article cites their "sophisticated spatial memory" and dance communication as signs of intelligence. I was thinking more of the "hive mind" concept, with an anthill or beehive analogous to a brain and the individual insects filling the role of neurons. A sinister hive mind takes possession of Tiffany, the young witch in Terry Pratchett's HAT FULL OF SKY, and manages to exchange thoughts with her in a rudimentary way. An extraterrestrial hive mind would be fascinating to deal with, as far as communication is concerned, but SO alien it might be difficult to integrate into a romance plot. If you fell in love with a "cell" in a group mind, wouldn't the entire hive share your intimate experiences?

The cleaner wrasse, a fish that nibbles parasites off larger fish, has enough brain to be sneaky about eating small chunks of a host's body and yet not bite the wrong fish, one that might eat him. Lobsters are "master navigators." My favorite aquatic smart creature from this article, however, is the octopus. Octopuses learn from experience and have been observed apparently playing with objects, a sign of intelligence; only intelligent animals continue to play into adulthood. Because they can manipulate things with their tentacles, super-octopuses on an alien planet could develop some sort of material technology, making them the kind of ET we could comprehend and maybe communicate with.

The last example in the article doesn't even have a brain—the amoeba. In foraging for food, it follows a zigzag pattern displaying "search optimization." This example brings up the question of how far the definition of intelligence should be stretched. The first page defines it as "the capacity to learn from one's surroundings and use reason to apply that knowledge toward a goal." Okay, just about any animal, including the amoeba and the lowly paramecium, can learn from its surroundings in the sense of modifying its behavior accordingly. But in what sense can a creature without a brain be said to "use reason"? Which relates to the SF problem of whether we could recognize an alien as intelligent if it had a type of intelligence extremely different from ours. Or suppose we met a being whose difference of scale went in the opposite direction from the bee's or amoeba's—a creature the size of a planet or star. Maybe its thoughts would move with such ponderous deliberation that it would have trouble recognizing US as intelligent.

P. S.: What kinds of topics would you be interested in seeing us blog about? I think this has been asked before, but more input is always welcome.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt:


  1. Interesting info Margaret, thanks.

    I love reading or hearing of links to articles like this.

    I am really interested in the concept of Convergent Evolution. This relies on the concept that animals and plants with no genetic background develop similar characteristics to fill a similar niche.

    If you think about the variety and similarity that has been created here then relate it to an alien world, it is easier to "invent" a new species.

    First though, you need to understand the reason why behavioural characteristics and physical abilities relate to a specific physical or cultural environment then create something different.

    Hence the more interesting facts we can glean about the nature of beings around us, the more depth we can get into our world building.

    I think we vastly under-estimate the intelligence of all animals around us. I have witnessed a budgerigar parent teaching its five progeny to fly as a pack. As a non tamed bird it also got anxious at the amount of touching its progeny were getting from me.

    We assume that just because we can't communicate with them, they are stupid. We're wrong.

    That is another concept that is easily explored and illustrated in an "alien" environment.

  2. "I am really interested in the concept of Convergent Evolution. This relies on the concept that animals and plants with no genetic background develop similar characteristics to fill a similar niche."

    I like that concept, too, esp. as it relates to alien planets, as you mentioned. Examples of convergent evolution on Earth -- e.g., the Australian marsupials that look amazingly similar to corresponding placental mammals on other continents -- provide a rationale for extraterrestrial species that look a lot like Earth species, including humanoid aliens.

    I've read a book called OTHER SENSES, OTHER WORLDS about Earth animals who perceive the environment through senses different from our standard five, such as magnetism, infrared vision, etc. The wide variety of organisms on our own planet offers an abundance of ideas for aliens.