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An octopus named Qualia is sitting in the aquarium on the far right, being filmed by a camera man. We can see a live video of Qualia on the screen above, before it was given jars to open. Unfortunately, it wasn't motivated to open those jars, today. Seated individuals, from left to right are Faith Salie, Frank Grasso, Denise Herzing, and Suzana Herculano-Houzel. Behind the tank are some of Grasso's assistants. Photo taken by Mitchell S. Lampert.

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[WSF19] ‘Expanding Intellect Beyond Humans,’ Part 1: Intelligence in Other Animals

How special are we, really?

Brian Greene’s annual World Science Festival hit Manhattan again last week, and AiPT! Science was there! Keep coming back all week for more coverage!

Among many other amazing topics, this year’s World Science Festival lead a couple panels that attempted to expand what it means to be intelligent. “Rethinking Thinking: How Intelligent are Other Animals?” took place the evening of June 1, 2019. A second panel got even weirder, covering intelligence without brains.

This first panel was moderated by three-time Emmy-winning journalist, author, and comedian, Faith Salie. Throughout the event, the panelists provided a few different examples of animals thinking out solutions to problems using lateral and abstract reasoning. A short film at the beginning explained how we once thought animals were capable of merely “stimulus and response,” invoking B.F. Skinner’s work with mice and Ivan Pavlov’s famous dog experiments.

But primatologist Jane Goodall started to change all that, when she observed chimpanzees constructing tools from sticks. Her colleague, Luis Leakey, famously replied, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

“Rethinking Thinking: How Intelligent are Other Animals?” panel members, from left to right: Faith Salie (moderator), Simon Garnier, Frank Grasso, Denise Herzing, and Suzana Herculano-Houzel. Photo by Mitchell S. Lampert.

It begins with brain mass

Suzana Herculao-Houzel, a biologist and neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, talked about counting brain cells. It’s not merely the size of the brain that matters for intelligence, but how many neurons one has in it. If your neurons are smaller, you can fit more of them into any given volume of brain. She used jars filled with beads as visual aids to demonstrate this.

Photo by Mitchell S. Lampert

It happens that primates have relatively small neurons, compared to rodents and other mammals, so we can pack quite a lot of them (86 billion on average) into our large brains. But birds, it turns out, have even smaller brain cells than we do. However, since bird brains are disproportionately smaller in volume, they don’t get to be as intelligent as we are.

Herculao-Houzel noted that the cortex is of particular importance. The more cortical neurons a species has, the longer they tend to live, and the longer it takes for an individual to reach puberty. The longer one lives, the more time the animal has to work out novel solutions to problems. It’s been shown mathematically that body size and metabolic rate don’t actually matter as much, when it comes to this.

Talking to dolphins

Science, it seems, has come a long way since 1964, when “volunteer naturalist” Margaret Howe Lovatt tried to teach a dolphin named Peter to speak, with abysmal results. Today, scientists are taking the time to learn dolphins’ own communication system first, to understand what they are already “saying” to each other. Then, perhaps, we can find ways to bridge the gap.

Here are some things we know about dolphin intelligence already:

  • They can understand commands given in sign language. The fact they can even recognize signs when displayed on a television shows some level of abstract reasoning.
  • They pass the “mirror test,” meaning they can recognize themselves being reflected in a mirror.
  • They give each other names, in the form of “signature whistles.”
  • They also communicate in burst-pulse squawks for social interaction and fighting, and various types of buzzes for courtship, calf-rearing, and shark repellent.
  • They naturally play games with their own calves using sargassum, a form of seaweed.

Denise Herzing, a founder and research director of the Wild Dolphin Project, uses a C.H.A.T. (Cetacean Hearing And Telemetry) system to try to talk them, sort of. It can pick up sounds from dolphins, using hydrophones, and then play them back and mimic them.

C.H.A.T. could be used to train dolphins to associate sounds with objects, such as a sargassum, and we could see if they respond back with those same sounds when using those objects. So far it’s worked to a certain, limited degree. There’s still no “Rosetta stone” with human communication, yet.

Octopus innovation

The octopus has a completely different brain structure from fish and mammals, says neuroscientist Frank Grasso, director of the Biomimetic and Cognitive Robotics lab at Brooklyn College. They can still solve novel problems, though, figuring out how to open jars they’ve never seen before, for instance.

Grasso brought along an octopus of his own, named Qualia, for a live demonstration. Unfortunately, Qualia wasn’t feeling very motivated, so we saw a pre-recorded video of a jar-opening octopus instead. We also saw a film of an octopus, in the wild, making a mobile home out of a coconut husk, which also demonstrates a capacity for innovation.

From left to right:  Faith Salie, Frank Grasso, Denise Herzing, and Suzana Herculano-Houzel. Photo by Mitchell S. Lampert.

Scientists have also learned that octopus camouflage is not merely some automatic blending with an environment. It’s a process the animal actively controls with its brain, in a complex manner, thinking about what might be seen from a predator’s point of view.

Unlike solitary octopuses, the related cuttlefish are more social, and use a form of language with each other. Not only that, they’re also capable of disguised language, producing subtle color patterns in their skin that can warn others about predators, while they remain camouflaged. Cuttlefish can also produce patterns that, in one direction, attract a female, but in another, threaten other competing males.

Liquid brains

“An individual ant is stupid,” says Simon Garnier, associate professor in the Federated Department of Biology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and head of its Swarm Lab. But, together, as a group, ants can innovate solutions to novel problems, even without a leader.

The queen is not actually the boss of the colony! Army ants are able to build bridges of their own bodies to cross gaps, as a simple example. Mathematical models show that the only input needed to organize this behavior is a simple stimulus of getting stepped on by other ants.

The larger the swarm, the more specialized each of its members becomes. We see this trend in our own brains, as neurons have become more specialized over time. Of course, we have a solid, singular brain that stays in one place in our bodies. If ants are to be thought of as a brain unit, with each one acting like a single neuron, we could say they form a sort of “liquid brain,” as they tend to move around a lot.

There’s even some level of personality in ants, with larger units often taking advantage of smaller ones. There’s no sense of culture, though, since there is no transfer of knowledge between generations.

How special are we, then?

At the end of the panel, the members were asked what makes humans special, after knowing all of this. Perhaps surprisingly, the answers didn’t hone in on any one thing.

Grasso said that humans evolved to be “as intelligent as we need to be,” but that’s not the only way to be intelligent. Other beings have been evolving as long as we have, and have their own diverse solutions to being smart. Herzing reiterated that humans have unique qualities, but “we’re not the only ones that are unique.”

Herculano-Houzel said that we are NOT special, just larger-brained primates. But with these brains, we depend a lot more on culture. She warned that all we’ve learned can be lost in a generation, if we don’t educate the next one.

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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