Animal minds are extraordinarily diverse, but a new attempt to categorise them aims to reveal the distinct nature of intelligence in everything from dolphins to bees – and even us
IF YOU have ever concluded that intelligence is in short supply in the modern world, perhaps you are looking in the wrong place. Humanity may seem to be suffering from collective stupidity, but there are still plenty of smarts to be found elsewhere.
You will be familiar with the clever antics of whales and dolphins, chimpanzees and orangutans. But what about wasps? They can recognise human faces. Or crabs? They use stinging anemones to defend themselves against predators. Then there are alligators that place sticks on their snouts to catch egrets looking for nesting material. And mosquitoes can learn to avoid pesticides after a single taste. Plants show intelligence too. A parasitic vine called a dodder sniffs out its prey with remarkable discernment, for example. Blobby yellow things called slime moulds can learn and teach each other. Even biofilms – collectives of bacteria – possess short-term memory and the ability to make decisions.
Such an astonishing array of aptitude is rather unsettling. It also raises some fundamental questions, including what actually is intelligence, how did it evolve and how do the abilities of various organisms compare? These are hard to answer. Evaluating intelligence in nature is tricky, particularly in life forms that are very different from us. But now a group of neuroscientists, AI researchers and philosophers have come up with a radical idea. They want to create a periodic table of intelligence akin to the one used to categorise the chemical elements. If they succeed, …