How Smart Are We?

Linnaeus caused a stir when he included human beings in the animal kingdom, even though he flattered us with the name homo sapiens.  Charles Darwin caused a similar stir, though he asserted “there can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense…”  But calling ourselves wise hasn’t been enough for most of us.  Our Bibles put us above mere animals, on a level just below the angels.  Even our scientists weren’t satisfied with Linnaeus; they further differentiated us from other homo sapiens because of our superior intelligence – never mind that we mated with Neanderthals.  The scientific world now bestows on us the title “homo sapiens sapiens” – not just wise, but doubly-wise.

When we were children, we were treated to many proofs of Man’s superior intelligence: we alone use tools; we alone have language; we alone care for our young so long; we alone can learn independently; we alone can solve new problems not encountered before; we alone have culture; we alone engage in entertainment, art, and play.  After it became obvious that these distinctions were proving false, people became more cautious.  A recent list of the top ten traits that set us apart from other animals shows how much ground has been conceded.  Charles Q. Choi, contributing to Live Science in 2016, listed the top ten distinctions as our speech, our upright posture, our lack of body hair, the fact we wear clothing, that we have “extraordinary brains,” that we have precise hands, that we make fire, that we blush, that we have long (if dependent) childhoods, and that we live past child-bearing age.[1] In creating that list, Choi acknowledged that we’re not the only animals that speak, we just speak differently; that our upright posture is responsible for high childbirth mortality rates compared to other primates; that we have as much body hair as other primates, but ours is thinner, shorter, and lighter; that while we have opposable thumbs, the apes do too, plus they have opposable big toes that do things ours cannot.  Blushing, and living past our reproductive usefulness, may be the only things that really sets us apart, but we don’t yet understand what good these things do us.

Distinctions such as Choi’s make us different, but do they make us superior?  For many religious, the claim that we’re superior depends first on our “souls,” which, despite a lack of proof for their existence, many of us believe in the way we believe in our superior intelligence.  When it comes to that intelligence, Choi acknowledges that our brains are not the largest.  But our brains, he tells us, are “extraordinary” because they can produce the works of Mozart and Einstein.  And as any human being will tell you, Mozart is more beautiful than the screeching and moaning of a whale.  As any human being will tell you, it takes a higher intelligence to develop an atom bomb than it does to fly like a bat.

But do such judgments tell us more about our vanity than our intelligence?  Consider our history of assessing animal intelligence.  In 2013, the Wall Street Journal published a wonderful article by primate researcher Frans de Waal.  For years, de Waal wrote, scientists believed elephants incapable of using tools – one of the classic “proofs” of human intelligence.  In earlier studies, the elephants had been offered a long stick while food was placed outside their reach to see if they would use the stick to retrieve it, as people (and chimpanzees) were able to do. When the elephants left the stick alone, the researchers concluded that the elephants didn’t understand the problem. “It occurred to no one,” wrote De Waal, “that perhaps we, the investigators, didn’t understand the elephants.” Elephants use their trunks to smell, not just to hold branches.  As soon as an elephant picks up a stick, its nasal passages are blocked and it can’t tell what’s food and what isn’t.  So years passed before researchers decided to vary the test.  But when they put a sturdy square box out of sight, a good distance away, the elephant easily retrieved it, nudging it all the way to the tree, and used it to reach the fruit with a trunk that could now smell, and touch, and approve, the fruit.

Even more anthropocentric, in retrospect, is the research on chimpanzees’ abilities to recognize faces.  For years, scientists had been giving chimps pictures of human faces, and when chimps failed to distinguish among them, researchers happily concluded that the “unique” human ability to recognize faces had not been matched by the chimps.  It took decades before someone thought to test chimps on the basis of their ability to recognize the faces of other chimps, and when they did. They discovered that chimps were amazingly good, not just at recognizing faces, but using them to extrapolate to family relationships!  And with improvements in testing methods, de Waal wrote, a 2007 study showed chimpanzees did significantly better than a group of university students at remembering a random series of numbers.[2]

The accepted idea is that “intelligence” involves the capacity to learn.  But to learn what?   If I can learn calculus easily but am helpless learning to play the piano, does that make me smarter than my counterpart with the opposite aptitudes, or less so?  Am I “smarter” than Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, or less so?  If people learn different sorts of things at different speeds, then is there any basis to say that one is smarter than another, without “smartness” being related to a particular skill?  I once thought a fair answer might be that an individual could be considered “smarter” if she easily learned those things that are important  as opposed to the eccentric who has an aptitude for odd or useless things.   If I can learn to build a house, or a car, easily, but my friend was able to play the piano the first time his hands touched the keys, the question of who’s “smarter” might depend on which skill is more useful to a typical human being.  Indeed, standardized testing still exists in K-12 because it is useful in predicting success in college.  This utilitarian approach to intelligence made at least some sense to me – until I sought to apply it to the rest of the animal kingdom.

What does science tell us about the relative intelligence of animals?  Finding a raft of “top ten” lists on the internet, the first thing I noticed was their lack of consensus.  Several sources rated chimpanzees the smartest animals; others dolphins, whales, elephants, and pigs.  But the variety of nominees was striking: top-ten lists included parrots, dogs, cats, squirrels, rats, crows, pigeons, orangutans, gibbons, baboons, gorillas, otters, ants, bees, ravens, ducks, cows, bonobos, and octopi, each list focusing on different skill sets or aptitudes.  I quickly decided that the lack of IQ testing on Noah’s ark wasn’t the only reason people can’t agree on what makes an animal smart.  There’s no universally-accepted definition of intelligence for species, any more than there is for humans.

Clearly, we do some things better than other animals.  In fact, as we look around our world, we see examples of such things all around us.  But I suspect that from a dog’s perspective, the variety of sounds and smells he’s aware of, that we are not, makes it seem to him he’s aware of a great deal more in the world than we are.  What he sees all around him is equally full of confirmations of what he can appreciate, that we cannot. When we speak of our intelligence, when we give as examples Einstein and Mozart, what should I make of my assumption that a whale sees nothing special about Einstein?  And how would I know whether the whale appreciates Mozart?  Is it possible whales are simply bored by the ‘inferior’ sounds they see Mozart to be?  I’m quite sure, meanwhile, that I’m incapable of appreciating the ways whales communicate with each other.  Is it objective to conclude that we’re “smarter” because we understand the complexities of Mozart?

How is it we put so much stock in our ability to do the things we do well, and so little stock in the “unimportant” (to us) things we don’t do as well as other animals — like turn into a butterfly that can navigate its way back to a birthplace thousands of miles away?  Sure, a dog may not be able to learn Einstein’s theories.  But we’re not able to learn how to listen or smell with a dog’s acuity — even though dogs have been trying to teach us how to do so for centuries, by modeling it for us?  Why don’t we conclude we’re slow learners?

The second observation I made during my review of the “smartest animal” lists was that, in commenting on why these species were considered especially smart, list after list referred to the nominee’s similarities to us.

Take, for example, the reasons given by for ranking chimpanzees the most intelligent animals: “Chimps … like humans, live in social communities and can adapt to different environments…  Chimpanzees can walk upright on two legs if they choose…”[3]  (Surely most scientists don’t believe that walking upright has anything to do with intelligence.  (Am I wrong here, Stephen Hawking?)

In explaining why it ranks dolphins the second smartest (right after chimps), How Stuff Works tells us, “Schools of dolphins can be observed in the world’s oceans surfing, racing, leaping, spinning, whistling and otherwise enjoying themselves.”  Okay…  And why does it rank Elephants fourth smartest?  “Elephants are also extremely caring and empathetic to other members of their group and to other species, which is considered a highly advanced form of intelligence.”[4]  About chimps, CBS says their number one ranking is “Perhaps not entirely surprising given that chimpanzees happen to be the closest living relatives to humans in the animal kingdom.”

The CBS website makes a truly remarkable assertion based on the difference in the brains of dolphins and human beings:  “Turns out that like the other animal species in this gallery, dolphins possess large brains relative to their body size with a neocortex that is more convoluted than a human’s. Experts say that this puts dolphins just behind the human brain when it comes to cognitive capacity.”  If, as I understand, a convoluted brain surface is an indication of intelligence, how does the greater convolution of the dolphin brain put the dolphin behind us, rather than ahead of us?[5]  Is it because our inability to understand their squeaks renders their speech “gibberish,” much as E=mc2 might seem gibberish to them?

Having eyes behind our heads, or a third arm projecting from our backs, could be very useful to us in the right situations.  Yet we’re happy to be without them.  However, if we were to lose the sight of an eye or one of our arms, we might feel some tragedy had befallen us.  Why is it that we don’t regret not having eyes in the backs of our heads?  Why do we not lament the lack of a third arm – or the fact that we lack the olfactory prowess of a dog, or the sonar of a bat?  I’ll bet that if our noses could do what a dog’s can, our ability to distinguish thousands of things based on a just a few molecules in the air would rank among the first reasons that humans are the smartest animals.

So my dilemma is this: what happens if we try to remove any anthropocentric bias from our assessment of intelligence?  Is there a species-neutral standard by which to assess such things?  The more I consider the matter, the more I’m drawn to the possibility that the only definition by which one species can be said to be more intelligent than another is to ask how well-suited its unique talents are to ensuring its survival.  Measured that way, homo sapiens sapiens has done pretty well for itself, at least in the hundred thousand years it’s been around.  Maybe there’ve been a few times we haven’t seemed so bright – but hey, what’s an error like thinking that the entire universe revolves around the earth, when we can figure out how to make chemicals like DDT or fill the planet with gas-powered automobiles?  Have we not been successful, filling the earth with billions of copies of ourselves?  Some say that a measure of human intelligence is our extraordinary ability to adapt to new environments.  Have we not, after all, proven our ability to adapt to different environments? [6]

The four animals most commonly found at the top of the “smartest animals” lists I found were chimpanzees (and other primates), dolphins (and whales, porpoises, and other aquatic mammals), elephants, and pigs.  But most of the species in these groups are endangered.  If they really are similar to us, and they really are endangered, then what conclusions should we draw?  That like the great apes, we too are near extinction?  Or does the fact that we are responsible for the near extinction of most of these species mean that we are smarter than they are, and very different, after all?

Of course, not all the “similar” species are nearing extinction.  Dolphins are doing well, apparently.  Domesticated pigs are flourishing.  But before concluding that pigs have been “smart” to prosper so that they can end up on our dinner tables in such large numbers, if the true intelligence of a species is best evidenced by long term growth and survival, why do we find all the “intelligent” animals among mammalia?

It is nearly impossible to calculate the number of cockroaches that exist worldwide due to the fact that so many already exist and are reproducing at such a fast pace. Scientists believe that there are over 4,000 species around the world and there are at least 40 different species that exist in America. One source suggests that 36,000 cockroaches exist per building in some parts of America.[7]

Cockroaches have also been around for 300 million years – three thousand times longer than homo sapiens — and could easily survive a nuclear winter.[8]

But it simply isn’t acceptable to suggest that cockroaches are smarter than people.  Obviously, all mammals are smarter than insects; all primates are smarter than other mammals; all humans are smarter than other primates; and the smartest people in the world are those whose religious, political, and other beliefs all happen to match my own.  But doggone it, I still can’t figure out what makes us so extraordinarily smart.  Maybe someday we’ll figure it out, the way we finally figured out that the earth isn’t at the center of the Universe.


[1] Charles Q. Choi, Top Ten Things That Makes Humans Special, 

[2] De Waal, Fran, The Brains of the Animal Kingdom, Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2013,

[3] Dr. Karen Becker, The Most Surprisingly Smart Animals,

[4] Top Ten Smartest Animals,

[5] CBS News, Nature’s 5 Smartest Animal Species,

[6] I love that phrase “after all.”  Adaptability to different environments is indeed an oft-cited reason supporting human intelligence, but after only a hundred thousand years, it might be wiser to substitute the more accurate “so far” for “after all.”

[7] Larry Yundelson, Number of Cockroaches, The Physics Factbook, 

[8] See Zidbits, Can Cockroaches Survive a Nuclear Winter?


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2 thoughts on “How Smart Are We?”

  1. “Obviously, all mammals are smarter than insects; all primates are smarter than other mammals; all humans are smarter than other primates; and the smartest people in the world are those whose religious, political, and other beliefs all happen to match my own. ”

    Since about 1969 when I moved in across the hall from Joe I suspected that he was smarter than most of the other people I knew. He did not read more than I but he read stuff that I did not comprehend. He knew things that I had never heard off before and he had ideas that I had never dreamed. But, I only knew this because he shared these things with me. Fortunately I had the vocabulary to be able to understand most of what he was trying to impart and he was not averse to casting his pearls before swine. (Matthew 7:6 in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”)
    Joe has told me in the past that I was a very scary person. I did crazy insane things, or at least things that he had never considered doing before. Almost nothing about Joe’s religious, political, and other beliefs happened to match my own at that time and yet I new he was smart or at least smarter than most I knew. Communication was the determiner and xenophilia was the incentive.
    My wife says that if you live long enough all your clothes will coordinate in fashion and color. Maybe this is true of getting older and more experienced in living. My religious, political, and other beliefs all morphed to a more thoughtful rather than “blind faith” stance. So, I do not know if humans are the smartest creatures on Earth but they probably talk and share more than any other species.
    Peace, love, and tye-dye!

    1. Ron, it seems I must have only showed you my good side. But, yes, I found you scary! After the Judo instructor warned the class not to fool with him because he might kill by accident anyone who did, you immediately jumped on him. It was obviously a test. Even then, you were the curious scientist, I was the coward. I figured I’d learn more because I’d live longer, but it seems so far we’re about neck and neck…

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