You may sometimes doubt it as you read the news’ latest collection of our most stunningly dull moments, but humans are definitely the top of earth’s intelligence charts.
Language is seen as the big divider – a chimp may be able to outsmart you when it comes to feeding from an ant’s nest, but he can’t go and read a book on termites to help him out.
Measuring human intelligence is controversial in itself. Doing the same for animals is even more fraught. We can only really measure things that we understand so we put animals through human-like tests. Are we really measuring their intelligence fairly or just judging how like us they are capable of being?
Here are seven animals that have shown intelligence in a way we can measure and understand.
1 – Alex the parrot
Alex the African grey parrot was studied for 30 years. His greatest achievement is as the first non—human animal to have asked an existential question.
Irene Pepperberg, an animal psychologist, picked up her subject as a one-year-old at a pet shop, naming him with an acronym for “avian learning experiment”.
Alex was a standard bearer for his feathered friends. Scientists believed that primates were the most intelligent creatures by a clear margin, and while birds might be clever mimics, capable of literally parroting language, they could never approach the understanding of a chimp or gorilla.
He was taught with a model/rival system, encouraged to adopt behaviors by a “model” who was seen as a “rival” for his main trainer’s attention.
Among Alex’s achievements were identifying 50 objects, seven colors and five shapes. He understood concepts of size and difference and likeness. It is believed Alex’s 100-word-plus vocabulary was spoken with understanding.
That first existential question came when he asked what color he was – “You’re grey Alex, check your species name!”. Sign-language trained apes have never asked a question.
Faced with an apple, he tried to combine the names of two fruits he knew – the banana and cherry – to come up with a suitable word. He’d ask to be taken back to his cage when tired, apologize if human tempers got frayed and had an 80% success rate with the questions he was asked.
Each night he’d tell Pepperberg, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”
Sadly, these were his last words on September 6, 2007. He died after being left for the night, at the age of 31.
Dr. Pepperberg’s research continues and Alex’s lives on in the Alex Foundation.
2 – Nim Chimpsky
Another experiment that put the emphasis of intelligence on language featured Nim Chimpsky. He was named after Noam Chomsky, who as well as being a controversial left-wing intellectual is one of the foremost language scientists in the world.
The name of this chimp is a reference to Chomsky’s belief that only humans were “wired” for language. Nim was supposed to put that theory to the test in behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace’s 1970s project.
During the project Nim learned 125 signs for words and was able to use them in the right context. However, whether that amounts to understanding language in the way that humans use it is disputed. He could put signs together in simple “sentences” like “apple me eat” and managed a 16 word sequence asking for an orange to stuff down.
In fact, all of Project Nim is controversial. Did Terrace set out to prove a particular point? Was the experiment cruel? What about the way it was conducted?
Nim certainly didn’t come out undamaged. He was sent on to a primate studies institute, where he showed signs of distress – he’d been treated as all-but human for the first decade of his life. When he was sent to an animal experiment facility he desperately signed to “hug” and “play”.
Release to an animal ranch where he lived alone was equally painful for the young chimp, who killed a dog before things improved.
He died of a heart attack, aged 26 in 2000.
The excellent film Project Nim is a good place to start if you want to find out more about this fascinating experiment and the complex issues it raises.
3 – Kanzi the bonobo
Kanzi is a bonobo who lives in Iowa, and by some accounts is the Smartest Ape in the World. He’s another language experiment primate, the subject of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.
Kanzi’s adoptive mother was being taught to use lexigrams, a system of keyboard symbols standing in for words used in primate language research. Kanzi had gone along to the lessons but had just done baby bonobo things in the background.
Until one day when his mother wasn’t there, Kanzi started to speak using the keyboard. He is the first ape ever to have done this without direct training.
From the start Kanzi proved to be a star, quickly picking up a large vocabulary which he can identify from spoken English cues.
Furthermore, Kanzi is reported to have asked for the tools to make a fire and successfully toasted marshmallows. He’s recently been reported to be cooking the omelets he likes so much.
He’s also shown the restraint when confronted with the Maori Haka – a war dance that New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team deploy with great effect before matches – to ask to see it in a private space where his fellow bonobos wouldn’t be upset by it.
With teaching Kanzi has made knives of a type that the first tool-making humans might recognize, adding his own techniques to those he was shown. And he can play Pac-Man, which no Stone Age human could.
He’s picked up parts of American Sign Language from watching Koko the gorilla on film, and the noises he makes when triggering lexigrams may come as close to “speaking” the words as a bonobo’s vocal tract will allow him to come.
4 – Akeakamai the dolphin
We love dolphins, and we’ve long assumed them to be both smart and sympathetic to humans. Stories of dolphins rescuing humans in trouble in the water go back to the Ancient Greeks. Akeakamai is another language student who showed that whatever primates can do, dolphins can have a crack at too.
Primates are very like us, chimps share 80% or more of our DNA, and they can live in similar environments. Dolphins are very different from us genetically and are masters of an environment that kills us.
Dolphins do, though, appear to communicate. Researchers are now using computers to try to determine if dolphins can be taught new calls and use them in their own “language”.
Akeakamai was tested in that way, but did learn sign language with some success while living in the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii until her death in 2003 from cancer.
A sign language system was invented and taught to Akeakamai, with scientists claiming their charge proved her ability to understand and follow instructions taking account of both content and word order.
Instruction sentences are up to five words long and include instructions that can only be correctly understood by understanding the grammar of the sentences. They also include directional instructions and Akeakamai was able to distinguish left and right.
For example, the signed sequence, “Surfboard. Person. Fetch,” has an almost opposite meaning to “Person. Surfboard. Fetch.” Akeakamai knew when to take the person to the surfboard and when to take the surfboard to the person.
Work on dolphins is continuing. Their ability to understand instructions as well as their own communication is being studied.
5 –Rio the sea lion
Rio is a seven-year-old sea lion studying, sorry being studied, at the University of California. Her badge of intelligence is that she has exhibited logical thinking – the first animal to do this.
Unusually in this field, the Rio experiments have not focused on language. Rio’s logical sequences are made without any attempt to engage language.
Sea lions can handle language though, and Rio’s tame doctor Ronald Schusterman managed to teach a group sign language before moving on to testing out a different way of thinking about animal intelligence.
The test was done by pairing 90 items from three categories. Rio was taught, with herring rewards, which item or symbol paired with which.
She learned that very quickly, and was also able to take the pairs backwards, knowing that if an elephant sign is paired with a spatula, then a spatula should also be paired back with an elephant.
The big test was to see if she could skip a stage and link an item from group A directly to one from group C without seeing the linked object in group B. This is making a logical leap – knowing that if A = B and B = C then A = C.
She did it.
Schusterman reckons many animals can achieve this, it’s just it’s never been tried.
6 – Jumpy the border collie
Anyone who’s owned a dog will give them credit for intelligence. And how can anyone seeing a companion dog guide a blind person or help a disabled owner doubt that dogs have some pretty special cognitive abilities and great empathy?
Currently being hailed as the smartest dog in the world, Jumpy the border collie’s claims to intelligence lie not only in memorizing a long string of movements, but in apparently reacting to changes in instructions as he goes.
Jumpy’s videos have become viral hits. In the first, he performed 25 tricks in two minutes.
The second, recorded by his trainer Omar von Muller, shows the three-year-old reacting to numbers in a specific way.
Told he cannot play with a ball until his owner counts to three, Jumpy stays away from that canine crack cocaine while Omar teasingly skips the number three and counts backwards and forwards.
Such shows aren’t necessarily good guides to intelligence – is it just memory? (If it is it’s very good memory).
But dogs are considered intelligent and border collies are usually at the top of the list when intelligence is tested.
There have been some tests on dogs’ ability to learn and remember language, and an Austrian hound called Betsy, again a border collie, is reported to have a vocabulary of over 300 words.
7 Koko the Gorilla
Koko is probably the most famous animal on our list, an internet sensation, known not only for her intelligence but great shows of emotion that humans find irresistible.
She was born in 1971 in San Francisco Zoo and has been studying language with her trainer Penny Patterson for much of her life. She is one of the very few non-human animals known to have kept a pet.
Koko’s team claim she can understand as many as 2,000 words and use around 1,000 signs. Critics say she is just doing what her handlers expect of her.
She has recognized herself in a mirror, showing a sense of self, and has reported memories. She’s even been known to make jokes and Patterson says she can invent new signs for new objects – signing “finger-bracelet” on seeing a ring for the first time, for example.
Koko reportedly asked to be given a cat in 1983 and chose a pet she called All Ball in 1984, caring for it like a gorilla child. Film of Koko reacting to the news of her pet’s death have become a YouTube hit.
She also met actor Robin Williams in 2001, and the film of their meeting – which obviously had a very profound effect on Williams – has over 6 million views. Following Williams’ suicide in 2014, Koko was reported to have cried after learning of the death.
Commonly called “The World’s Smartest Gorilla” by the media, some scientists are concerned that Koko’s apparent abilities are more reported in the popular press than scientific papers.