As horse trainers, we often get asked how intelligent we think horses are.
We’ve often heard that, on a human scale, you could compare a horse to a 6-year-old. But trying to compare the horse’s intelligence or any other animal’s intelligence to a human scale is not very helpful. For that matter, trying to scale intelligence from one human to another on a single scale is at best misleading and at worse harmful.
Scientists are now replacing the word ‘intelligence’ with ‘cognition.’ Wikipedia defines intelligence as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills” and cognition as “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.” The difference is that cognition, which is also more loosely defined as the way a mind flexibly solves problems, focuses on the how and not the what.
In other words, cognition recognises that there are multiple types of intelligences which evolved through time depending on each species’ need to fix problems to survive.
Dogs, for example, have done extremely well for themselves in terms of making a place in this human-dominated world. This is because they are very good - the best actually - at understanding communicative intention, or understanding what we meant through body language and even words. A telling test showed that dogs are able to understand our intention when we point to something, or even look at something, the same way children do, whereas other animals considered to be much closer to humans, such as apes, are not very good at it.
The fact that these tests were conclusive for unsocialised puppies too shows that this skill is part of their cognition, not just a learned behaviour through their life’s exposure to us. Wolves, on the other hand, which are the ancestors of dogs, are not particularly good at understanding communicative intention. This suggests that the dog’s cognition evolved at the same time as it was being domesticated.
Another thing dogs are very good at is learning through social imitation, in other words, if they see someone else do what they need to do to solve a problem. On their own, dogs performed poorly during an experiment requiring them to circumvent a fence to get to food but were very fast to understand the solution if they saw a human or another dog do it before them.
On the other hand, apes, and even ravens, are much better than dogs at understanding physical causal relationships. For example, dogs don’t understand that they see themselves in mirrors which apes do. Similarly, dogs perform poorly at a test which requires them to figure out that they need to pull on a rope to get food, a test that ravens prove to be extremely good at.
Each species developed a different set of tools, or problem-solving intelligence, depending on the evolutionary needs. So next time you wonder who is the smartest, ask first what is the problem that needs to be solved.
This was written based on a lecture series from Duke University which is available here: https://www.coursera.org/learn/dog-emotion-and-cognition/home/welcome