Sunday, January 08, 2023

Intelligence in Non-human Animals

Recently re-read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I was quite fond of it when I originally read it as an adolescent. I wasn't a fan of the 1982 movie The Secret of NIMH. It was missing the wistful quality of the ending because it dispensed with the plot thread about the rats' forced departure. There's something about being temporarily let in on a vanishing secret bigger than oneself.

Reading it as an adult, it struck me that the novel is not only charming, but also an unusual mixture of science fiction and fantasy. The major drive of the story is the background of rodents being made more intelligent through experimentation by humans. But underneath that is another author choice that fades into the background: even the untreated animals are fantastically much more human-like than reality, e.g., an unaltered "wild type" mouse can understand human speech and be taught, albeit slowly, to read. But of course a novel from an animal perspective is going to have treat animals as more intelligent than they are.1 It would be difficult to have an enjoyable story otherwise. After all, it's difficult, even impossible for humans to tell what it's like to be a bat (to allude to Thomas Nagel's famous essay at the expense of introducing another mammal to our considerations): how could we humans hope to relate to the experience of an animal so different from us?

One thing as a young person I also enjoyed about the novel was the exciting thought of making animals intelligent through technology. I think I enjoyed the 1983 film Hide and Seek for similar reasons, though with machines instead of animals. My memories are hazy, but it's about a teenager who serendipitously creates an artificial intelligence from a cellular automata not unlike Conway's Game of Life.2 I recall a similar wonder, hopefully not impious, in my reaction to both.

Here's a question that I've been pondering recently. On the assumption that evolution is real, does the existence of humans on planet Earth advance or retard the development of intelligence in other animals?

I put this question to friends last summer and some of them seemed to think our presence advances the animals around us. One person thought our products give them more things to think about. Perhaps. It surprised me that octopodes and crows were prominent in the conversation.3

I tend to think of pets. It's been noted that our pets, mostly dogs, have developed quite an emotional intelligence centered around us humans. It is striking how they seem to respond to human language, sometimes going beyond mere trained stimulus-response.

I wonder how the food we give domesticated animals shapes their development. I'm thinking of how primates developed. Apparently the bodies of some of our ancestors used to synthesize their own vitamin C. But then later they gained access to a dependable source of vitamin C, and lost that ability as the necessity passed. But that loss freed up their physiology for other things. I'm not sure those other things would lead to intelligence, but I hope you can see where I'm going with this. As our physiology is freed of requirements for mere survival, it opens room to develop for less slavish activities. I wonder if the same holds true of pets. Does our supplying them with their needs free their bodies to develop intelligent thought? Or does it simply allow them to become more dependent on us, and retard their intelligence? Part of the question here is about the nature of intelligence: does it have to be independent?4

On this topic, I would be remiss not to recommend Erwin Straus's 1949 essay on "Upright Posture," about how our physical embodiment is correlative to our intelligence. The most prominent example is how walking on two limbs frees our hands to pick up things at will. It's not just any physiology that can supplely serve an intelligent soul.

Finally, I have to wonder if non-human animals gained intelligence to the point of competing with us, would we allow them to continue, or would we hunt them down to extinction? I suspect most people would say that of course we would allow them to survive and even encourage them, but in addition to their competing for resources, it's also possible our raw emotional reaction would consign them to the same uncanny valley inhabited by the human-headed dog of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).

My own instinct is that our presence here retards the development of intelligence in other animals, similar to the way that the existence of life on Earth apparently prevents the generation of a new lineage of life here (abiogenesis). We occupy an ecological niche (if such a small word can reflect such a big footprint), and there's nothing to be gained by another species trying to fill it (filling unoccupied or poorly occupied niches is one driver of evolution). We don't know how rare life and intelligence are in the universe, or even in our galaxy, but I think that if we want the Earth to flourish as the unique font of life that it seems to be, perhaps we would do well to withdraw to space and let Earth do its thing.


1. Watership Down, rather more literalistic than Animal Farm, is an interesting comparison that would take us too far afield.

2. It bears more than a passing similarity to the film WarGames, also from 1983.

3. "Octopus" is from Greek not Latin, so the correct pretentious plural is "octopodes," not "octopi."

4. That question is part of a much larger debate. The bias of 20th century research in artificial intelligence has certainly been toward intelligence being most manifest in what might be called masculine activities, such as chess playing and mathematics. That's a real problem.