Feb 22nd 2013

Being Intelligent About Intelligence

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

Chimps once again triumph. Tetsuro Matsuzawa, a researcher at Kyoto University, showed that a chimpanzee named Ayumu clearly out-performed humans on some working memory tests, a category of short-term recall. What is surprising is that anybody finds this surprising. We continue to be blinded by our hubris and conceit, so sure are we that human beings are better and above all other animals. As Ayumu shows, we will continue to be disappointed. Let's take a look at the score board.

Intelligence

Without a doubt, human beings possess a level of intelligence, self-consciousness and self-awareness greater by degree than is found in any other animal. Evidence suggests that no animal besides the human kind is aware of its own mortality, the ultimate expression of self-awareness. (Elephants might be an exception). Only humans bury their dead ceremonially. Chimpanzees do not visit their lawyers to make out a will in anticipation of impending death. For centuries, philosophers have taken this highly developed sense of self in humans to mean that intelligence does not exist at all in other animals. Descartes was convinced that animals completely lacked minds, and his influence is felt even today. Even Stephen Jay Gould, no species-centric chauvinist, concluded that consciousness has been "vouchsafed only to our species in the history of life on earth."

With all due respect to the late Professor Gould, perhaps one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of our time, and to Descartes, the issue is not so simple. As with almost all aspects of comparative biology, intelligence, self-consciousness and self-awareness are elements of a continuum, rather than phenomena with sharp boundaries between species. Intelligence and self-awareness do not belong exclusively in the domain of humankind.

A rough hierarchy exits among the concepts of "intelligent," "self-conscious," and "self-aware." One must be intelligent to be self-conscious, and in turn, self-conscious to be self-aware. So let's begin with intelligence, the first ingredient in the recipe for self-awareness, in order to explore how these "human" capabilities are distributed throughout the animal kingdom.

Intelligence can be thought of as the ability to learn from experience (acquire and retain new knowledge), and to subsequently apply that new knowledge with flexibility to manipulate or adapt to a changing environment. Or intelligence can be seen as the ability to create abstract thought, beyond instinct or responses to sensory input.

The primary difficulty in defining and measuring intelligence precisely is that mental acuity is situationally dependent. While dolphins are clearly smart you would be severely challenged to teach one to climb a tree. An animal's intelligence, or more precisely, its ability to manifest its intelligence, is tightly correlated with its natural environment, and its evolutionary adaptations.

Intelligence, no matter how we define the concept, is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Animals have diverse adaptations that define the context of intelligence, making interspecies comparisons almost meaningless. Intelligence is found by degrees across the animal kingdom, and not in some nice neat linear correlation with some other trait like the development of mammary glands. Being smart seems to be a trait unique to human beings only when we artificially designate our particular suite of characteristics as the definition of intelligence, proving that circular logic is not too intelligent.

All of the references given here are cited in an extensive bibliography of Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World.

Self-consciousness

For most of human history, people were convinced that no animal could be self-conscious, with Descartes representing the poster child of this viewpoint. Our ability to be conscious of our own existence was seen to endow humans with something special. Self-consciousness was considered the ultimate expression of humanness. That is until we learned more about our animal cousins. Some animals indeed exhibit this most "human" of traits; in fact, self-consciousness is probably widespread in the animal kingdom.

The idea of self-consciousness is not without controversy; the scientific community is not unified in defining the concept. For example, some scientists use the term "self-conscious" in the sense that others use the term "self-aware" (as I do here): an animal's thought about thought, in which an animal has a "second order representation" of his own mental state. That means an animal not only thinks, but also thinks about thinking. Some scientists call the ability to "think about thinking" self-consciousness, and others call it self-awareness. This academic parsing is why cocktail parties at a professor's house can be so stimulating.

But the two concepts of awareness and consciousness are quite distinct, and should not be confused one with the other. Self-awareness represents a further refinement of self-consciousness. A simple definition of self-consciousness can be distilled to: understanding that you as an individual are distinct from the external environment, and at the same time recognizing that others are similarly aware of you as an individual. I can only recognize Ralph as a unique person if I first understand that I too am an individual. With this meaning then, the ability to recognize other individuals is perhaps the most important indication of an animal being self-conscious. The notion of self-consciousness is therefore amenable to experimental investigation because we can test for individual recognition. We have a window into the mind!

In the animal kingdom, individual recognition, and therefore self-consciousness, would most readily be found in highly social animals where survival depends on recognizing dominant individuals, and in turn, dominating those lower in the social hierarchy. (Remember high school)? Animals that pair-bond for life, and therefore can recognize a mate among many conspecifics, are also more likely to be self-conscious, at least by the definition given here.

For sticklers of logic, one implication here is that an animal can be self-conscious without being self-aware. That is, an animal can recognize itself as an individual among other individuals, without knowing anything deeper about its own mental state. But at the same time, gregarious animals would also have evolutionary pressures to recognize not only the dominant animal in the group as an individual, but also his emotional state and that of others in the hierarchy. You might get more food if you know when to approach a kill when the big guy is in a good mood. So while it is possible to be self-conscious without being self-aware, the development of one trait might typically lead to the other.

Self-awareness

Self-awareness is a further refinement of the concept of self-consciousness (while some scientists invert this relationship), in that you not only recognize yourself as an individual relative to others and the physical environment, you are also aware of your own mental state, including your own internal thoughts independent of the external world. Your thoughts are unavailable to anybody but you until you decide to expose them to the external world either through behavior or some type of communication. Self-awareness depends on no other creature but you. You would be self-aware even if you were the last person on earth, with no other sentient being to recognize your presence. Self-awareness is your brain acknowledging its own existence.

Place a chimpanzee, let's call him Alessandro, in a room in which he finds a large mirror. After a brief period in which Alessandro has become familiar with the room and the mirror, anesthetize him. While he is asleep, paint a dot of yellow paint on Alessandro's forehead, and gently place him back in the room. After waking up, most animals will not notice or react to the dot, continuing to treat the reflection in the mirror as another animal. But Alessandro, and his fellow chimpanzees and orangutans, will recognize the image in the mirror as themselves, touching their foreheads and examining the dot. That demonstrates that Alessandro knows the forehead in the mirror is his, and that he normally does not have a dot on his head.

One could object that this experiment in fact only demonstrates self-consciousness, rather than self-awareness, proving that Alessandro recognizes himself as an individual. This is a gray area. We cannot state with certainty from this particular experiment if Alessandro is aware of his own mental state even if the results hint in that direction. Nevertheless, we have from this and other observations at least an indication that primates like Alessandro might be truly self-aware. We also have evidence that mammals other than primates share this talent with humans. Using a modified version of the dot-on-the-forehead procedure, mirror self-recognition has been demonstrated in bottlenose dolphins, magpies and elephants.

Dolphins and porpoises have also demonstrated originality and creativity, both tangential indicators of self-awareness. An animal can only be creative in context of understanding its own behavior and intent, something that requires a level of self-awareness. Likewise, the act of creating something new, the capacity for originality, usually requires a deep understanding of one's own internal representation of the world as it now exits, also a feature of self-awareness. Animals that clearly demonstrate originality and creativity are likely self-aware, at least to some degree.

At the Makapuu Oceanic Center in Hawaii, trainers working with a female rough-toothed dolphin named Malia praised or fed her fish only for behaviors that had not been previously rewarded. Within a few days, Malia began performing novel aerial flips, corkscrews, new tail flaps, new twisted breaches, and other never-before-seen behaviors. Malia learned early on that the trainers were looking for new acts, not repetitions of previously demonstrated talents. As her repertoire expanded, she needed to create ever more unique combinations of movements to get a reward, which she did with aplomb, performing stunts so unusual that trainers could not have otherwise encouraged the behavior through standard training techniques. This propensity for originality and creativity (signs of self-awareness) was not a fluke unique to one individual.

Intelligence, self-consciousness and self-awareness would not seem to be uniquely human. Ayumu is not impressed.

Of course humans are unique, as are all species by definition. But nothing about our biology or evolutionary history makes us special. We remain a short-lived biological experiment with too little time to know if having a big brain is adaptive. Sure we have complex language and mathematics, but we also have weapons of mass destruction and the ability to destroy the resources that sustain us. The jury is out. We should be a bit humble about our position in the biosphere.



Book Introduction:

Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World

by Jeff Schweitzer and Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara 

June 22, 2009
"Beyond Cosmic Dice" offers a new perspective on the purpose and meaning of life free from any divine influence. By rejecting the false premises of religion, readers are free to pave their own road for a better life.


Jeff Schweitzer
 spent much of his youth underwater pursuing his lifelong fascination with marine life. He obtained his doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography through his neurobehavioral studies of sharks and rays. He has published in an eclectic range of fields, including neurobiology, marine science, international development, environmental protection and aviation. Jeff and his wife live in central Texas, moving there after retiring from the White House as Assistant Director for International Science and Technology.

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara is an evolutionary biologist with a doctorate from the University of California. He serves as a marine policy advisor to various national and international bodies, and has recently represented Italy in multilateral environmental negotiations. Through appearances on television and radio, and the publication of articles and books, he has been striving to increase public awareness of marine conservation. Giuseppe lives with his family in Northern Italy.




 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."