Thursday, June 11, 2015

Smart Animals

A pictorial piece on ten "geniuses" of the animal kingdom, including some that we don't typically identify as "smart":

Animal Geniuses

Raccoons can learn to pick locks! That's a new one on me, though I already knew from experience that they can pry lids off garbage cans. Maybe they are plotting to replace us as the dominant species on Earth? Today, opening lids and locks; tomorrow, hacking computers. Crows construct tools out of twigs and know how to use water displacement (dropping rocks into a container of water) to get things they want. Pigs understand mirrors—also new information to me—and can learn shapes "as quickly as human children" (some scientists estimate their intelligence as equal to that of human three-year-olds). I knew about the problem-solving skills of octopuses and rats. I was surprised, however, that the list includes sheep, usually stereotyped as pretty dumb. They allegedly can remember faces for up to two years. Pigeons also recognize faces and, like pigs and some primates, can recognize themselves in mirrors. Another small-brained animal on the page, the squirrel, gets included because of its phenomenal ability to recall the locations of buried nuts.

Two types of insects also make the list—creatures that we ordinarily don't acknowledge as having intelligence at all. Argentine ants brought together from far-flung parts of the world seem to recognize each other. Bees are credited with "hive intelligence," and their communication of food sources through dance is highlighted. These two examples challenge our definition of intelligence and raise the question of whether it can exist without self-consciousness. (I've previously mentioned Peter Watts's BLINDSIGHT, which postulates a species of aliens whose minds work that way—intelligence without consciousness.) Also, if intelligence comes in such unlikely shapes as insect hive minds, would we necessarily recognize ET sapience if we met it?

And on a related topic, an editorial that appeared in the Baltimore SUN this Monday, musing about the defense of a house on a wooded lot against the incursions of critters great and small:

Would Nature Miss Us?

The author segues to the larger theme of nature's overrunning the ruins of human civilization in places such as Chernobyl (a prospect explored in depth in books such as THE WORLD WITHOUT US, by Alan Weisman). Maybe the carpenter bees and wolf spiders are conspiring with the bears, crows, and raccoons in preparation to take over if we go extinct.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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