Pigs are able to play video games. Birds have innate GPS systems. Octopuses feel empathy. Are humans really so much more intelligent than animals?
Hamlet, Omelette, Ebony, and Ivory are four gamers in a category all their own. Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana (USA) taught the four pigs to manipulate a joystick with their snouts and demonstrated that they are able to associate the movement of their eyes with the cursor on the screen. The results of the study have just been published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Teaching a pig to geek out is not an insignificant thing. “It is no small feat for an animal to grasp the concept that the behavior they are performing is having an effect elsewhere,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Candace Croney. No small feat, but pigs are intelligent creatures. To motivate them to learn to play the games, the researchers used food rewards. They also encouraged them by voice and touch. The scientists now plan to teach the pigs to work with symbols in the hope of communicating with them, as has already been achieved with chimpanzees.
“It doesn’t actually make sense to compare or rank intelligences.”
Over the past 30 years, research in animal cognition has been accelerating. Science is increasingly showing us that our superiority is not actually a given. From our point of view, our own intelligence and our own ways of measuring it are naturally the best. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. “All animals are endowed with intelligence that is more or less variable, more or less diverse, more or less successful in terms of reaching their own objectives and resolving problems. There is so much diversity in these abilities that, for me, it doesn’t actually make sense to compare or rank anymore,” said Emmanuelle Poydebat, a director at France’s National Scientific Research Center (CNRS) specializing in animal behavior, to the France Culture radio network.
Another cause for reflection comes in the form of the incredible ability of migratory birds to circumnavigate the globe. Many of us are easily lost, even with a map showing us the way. There’s also the fact that while most of us are incapable of recognizing the vast majority of plants and flowers (beyond the occasional ficus and other interior staple houseplants), chimps are nearly all brilliant botanists. Is this enough to lead us to question our own intelligence? Perhaps not entirely. It may be worth thinking about, though, the next time you’re trying to find your way.