Intelligence - Genetic or Otherwise?
Longtime readers will know that I’m a sucker for anything
connected with animal intelligence, especially if it deals with
showing that birds or other animals have the ability to solve
problems creatively. Accordingly, I couldn’t pass up the article
“Minds of Their Own” by Virginia Morell in the March 2008
issue of National Geographic. The article begins with the tale of
Irene Pepperberg and her remarkable 30 years with Alex, the
African grey parrot. I’ve written about Alex several times and
sadly noted his passing last year at the age of 31.
The article also includes the stories of some other animals that
I’ve written about in these columns. For example, there’s Betty
the crow, who also died recently. Betty, you may recall, was the
one who fashioned a straight piece of wire into a hook to retrieve
a basket containing food out of a long tube. In another test, she
also made a hook out of a flat piece of aluminum. Betty was one
of 23 crows Alex Kacelnik and his students caught in the wilds
of the Pacific island New Caledonia and brought back to Oxford
University for study.
The New Caledonian crows are known for their making and use
of tools and the researchers wanted to find out if there was a
genetic trait related to this characteristic. So, in the aviary at
Oxford, they let the wild birds mate and reproduce. Kacelnik
and his crew then took four of the resulting offspring, making
sure the hatchlings had no contact with the adult birds. Without
any contact and any opportunity to learn tool making and use, the
fledglings all began picking up sticks, probing into cracks and
making tools. Voila! It’s genetic.
It’s clear that we self-centered humans and our primate cousins
aren’t the only animals with genes that promote the ability to use
tools. If birds share these capabilities with us, did we acquire our
tool-making genes separately from birds or were they passed
down from some common ancestor? According to the article, the
last ancestor common to us and to the birds was a reptile over
300 million years ago! You can bet the DNA people will be on
Another of the animals that we’ve mentioned before is Rico, a
border collie with a vocabulary of 200 names of toys that he had
learned. Unlike Alex, Rico couldn’t speak the words but when
asked to fetch a given toy, he would come back with the proper
item. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary
Anthropology in Germany studied Rico and he appeared on a
German TV show in 2001. After the show, people started
writing in saying that their dogs also had big vocabularies.
Another border collie named Betsy does indeed match Rico.
Betsy knows 340 words and her vocabulary continues to grow.
Julianne Kaminski and Sebastian Tempelmann of Max Planck
visited Betsy at her home in Vienna, where they would have
Betsy’s owner show Betsy a photograph of a new toy Betsy had
never seen. Betsy would go to another room and bring back the
toy itself or a photo of the toy from a group of toys and photos.
Betsy also knows at least 15 people by name.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – at least I think that’s
the saying. Scientists used to think that imitation in the animal
kingdom wasn’t such a big deal. However, they now recognize
that in order to imitate something, it takes a mental recognition
of the form or pattern of behavior that the imitator is trying to
imitate. It also takes an awareness of self for the animal to
position itself to do the imitating.
Take the dolphins that Louis Herman was studying at the Kewalo
Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Hawaii. A trainer would
lean back and lift his leg. The dolphin would turn on its back
and lift its tail. Hey, if you don’t have legs that’s close enough.
Herman and his group, until the dolphins’ accidental deaths a
few years ago, worked with four dolphins starting back in the
1980s. The humans developed a set of hand signals and the
dolphins would follow the hand signals grouped in a sequence
corresponding to a simple grammar. For example, showing the
hand signals for “right”, “basket”, “left”, “Frisbee”, “in” told the
dolphin to take the Frisbee on its left and place it in the basket on
it’s right. Switch the sequence of “right” and “left” and the
dolphin immediately reversed the placing of the Frisbee. The
dolphin understood the “grammar” of the “sentence”.
Somehow, Herman and his team managed to develop signals that
the dolphins recognized as “create” and “together”. The “create”
signal told the dolphin essentially to do its own thing. In their
natural habitat, dolphins are often observed doing things
together. Herman has film showing a pair of the dolphins
responding to a request to create something together. The
dolphins go underwater, swim in circles for a short time and then
simultaneously jump out of the water spinning and squirting
water in perfect unison.
Closer to home, as I finish this column, I’m looking at a full-
page picture of Kanzi, the 27-year-old Bonobo who, according to
the caption, has mastered a 360-symbol keyboard and
understands thousands of spoken words. I’m a bit skeptical
about the thousands of words. Kanzi is currently housed at the
Great Ape Trust of Iowa in the Des Moines area. I visited the
Trust’s Web site and found one statement to the effect that
Kanzi’s vocabulary was around 500 words. However, my
computer went berserk during the visit and I’m not sure that
figure is accurate.
The interesting thing about Kanzi is that he started out learning
by watching his mother being trained by researchers. They
didn’t think Kanzi was old enough to start training but he
surprised them with what he had learned, apparently just
watching them work with the mother. Kanzi also makes stone
tools and has played the piano with Paul McCartney and Peter
Gabriel. I plan to revisit the Trust’s Web site and find out more
about this talented ape.
My favorite of all the animals is still Alex, who could count to
six and, towards the end of his life, was trying to say the words
for seven and eight. It wasn’t easy for him and, without any
rewards, he would actually practice trying to say them correctly.
When Morell, the article’s author, visited Pepperberg and Alex
before he died Alex would spontaneously say “Ssse...won”.
Pepperberg responded, “That’s good, Alex” and would
pronounce the word “seven” repeatedly. Pepperberg said she
was surprised at how long she had to teach Alex certain sounds
before he managed to pronounce them correctly. However,
before he died, Alex did master “seven”.
I think that there should be an intelligent animal Hall of Fame to
enshrine the memories of these most remarkable beings. At least
so far, there shouldn’t be any question about steroids enhancing
Allen F. Bortrum