Thursday, May 06, 2010

Vision and Intelligence

About a week ago I saw a TV show on the Science Channel about animal intelligence. I'd heard about most of the phenomena before, such as the evidence that parrots don't merely "parrot" words but apply them in the proper context. For instance, a parrot won't say "goodbye" when a person is arriving. A parrot on this program actually knew how to add, or at least to count cumulatively, which is basically the essence of adding. While the trainer was testing another bird on identifying numbers, the older bird spoke up with "two" when the first two items were shown. When another pair of items was shown, instead of "two," the older bird said "four." And when yet two more items appeared, he said "six." There was no chance of cues from the trainer, as is the usual explanation for animals who "count," because the trainer was trying to get the less experienced bird to say "two," not even interacting directly with the older one.

One feature on this program was completely new to me, though: Monkeys can recognize—and count—objects in pictures. The experimenters put out two boxes, one with a picture of an apple, the other with a picture of one and a half apples. The monkeys consistently went to the box with the image of a larger amount of fruit. A further experiment tested whether they knew the difference between an image and a real object, which human babies don't, at first (below a certain age, a baby will try to pick up a pictured object off a page). Monkeys do know the difference; they always went for a real fraction of an apple taped on a box rather than box with a picture of whole apples. (It was not explained how the experimenters ruled out the possibility that the animals identified the real fruit by smell rather than by three-dimensionality.)

Suppose, however, we meet aliens with eyes or brains so different from ours that, although intelligent, they don't recognize that a two-dimensional image is supposed to represent an object? Remember the rabbits in WATERSHIP DOWN, who are presented as living and thinking like rabbits but with a human degree of self-awareness. Like those potential aliens, they are baffled by another rabbit warren's attempt to portray events from their myth cycle in the medium of two-dimensional mosaics. How can colored stones stuck on a wall "be" the rabbit god? Human beings are so used to learning and teaching by means of pictures that this difference might present a major impediment to recognizing the other species' intelligence or, at least, communicating with them. In a different medium, suppose those ETs had literally no concept of or capacity for nonfactual speech? Imagine the alienness of trying to communicate with a species that couldn't understand stories or even hypothetical examples.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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