Confused About Intelligence

I was actually saddened by this article on animal intelligence:

Who is smarter: a person or an ape? Well, it depends on the task. Consider Ayumu, a young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University who, in a 2007 study, put human memory to shame. Trained on a touch screen, Ayumu could recall a random series of nine numbers, from 1 to 9, and tap them in the right order, even though the numbers had been displayed for just a fraction of a second and then replaced with white squares.

I tried the task myself and could not keep track of more than five numbers—and I was given much more time than the brainy ape. In the study, Ayumu outperformed a group of university students by a wide margin. The next year, he took on the British memory champion Ben Pridmore and emerged the “chimpion.”

since it very clearly suggested that neither its author nor the researchers referenced knew what in the dickens they were talking about. They aren’t testing intelligence. They’re comparing the memories of chimps with those of literate and post-literate human beings.

We don’t need to have good memories. We have libraries. And Google. It would be amazing if we had really good memories.

However, our ancestors who were primarily oral had excellent memories. How else do you think that Greek bards could remember the Iliad? Or Hindu poets the Ramayana?

I do think that non-human animals are more intelligent than most give them credit for. Or, more accurately, that humans aren’t as much more intelligent than other animals as we give ourselves credit for. Or, more accurately still, that there isn’t human intelligence on the one hand and animal intelligence on the other.

4 comments… add one
  • Excellent observation. I believe the Google machine is a boon for elder productivity as well. Those of us whose brains are reaching their their golden years can now stay productive as long as we can remember the questions. The Google machine will provide the answers we’ve long forgotten.

  • Tom Strong

    I liked the article. I see your point about the chimp memory test, and he was overstating his case there. But that memory test was itself an important corrective to prior research, especially the human-centric notion that chimps should remember human faces because our faces are more distinct.

    The bulk of the article was really about breaking down such built-up biases, and exposing how simplistic our understanding remains on this topic. It amplifies your own final point very well.

  • sam

    “Those of us whose brains are reaching their their golden years can now stay productive as long as we can remember the questions.”

    Golf joke.

    Guy comes home after a bad day on the course and says to his wife, “I’m done. My eyes are shot. Even with my glasses on, I can’t see where the ball goes. It’s not fun anymore.” His wife says, “What? Come on, you love the game. Tell you what, why don’t you take my dad out with you. He’d like it.” “Your dad? WTF?? He’s 85!.” “Yeah, but you know, he’s got excellent eyesight. You’ve said so yourself. You two can ride together, you hit the ball, and he’ll tell where it goes. You can still play, and he can get out for some fresh air.” “Well, OK, I’ll give it a try.”

    Next time on the course. Guy tees his ball up, and says to his father-in-law, “Now you watch this, OK? I’m going to hit it. You watch and tell me where it goes, right?” ‘Right, no problem, son. I got this. Fire away.”

    Guy winds up and smacks the ball, KerPow!!. “Sounded great,” he says to himself.” He turns to his father-in-law and says, “OK, where’d that go?” Father-in-law: “I forget.”

    This joke is not as funny to me now as it might have been 10 years ago…

  • sam

    But seriously,

    ” They’re comparing the memories of chimps with those of literate and post-literate human beings.”

    I don’t think they’re even doing that. Consider the ambiguity in the word ‘number’. ‘number’ can mean the typographical shapes, ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘4’, ‘5’, … or it can mean the concepts, entities, whatever, referred to by the typographical shapes, ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘4’, ‘5’, … that play a specific role in, say, arithmetic. (We need not engage the nominalist/realist controversy here. But later on…)

    Now, when you and I are presented with the series of numbers, we do not see a simple sequence of mere shapes, such as we might if presented with sequence of geometric silhouettes or cutouts. A sequence of numbers, even a random sequence of numbers, means something to us that it does not mean to an animal. That is, for us, number shapes, if you will, are freighted with conceptual baggage acquired through the uses to which we put the shapes in our lives (crudely). The number shapes carry no such baggage for chimp. We and the chimp might be looking at the same things, but we are not seeing the same things. If that’s right, then a fortiori, we and the chimp are not “remembering (or not) the same things”.

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