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New Scientist ran an article the other day outlining a new insight into the intelligence of monkeys and dolphins. (You need to be a subscriber to read the whole article.)

Monkeys and dolphins have been trained to do tests. The monkey had to pick the largest number from two groups of objects. The dolphin had to choose the highest of two pitches.

They can do that fairly reliably: which is a bit of an indicator of how smart they are. But the new finding is that when they aren't sure, they can pick "I don't know" in preference to making a mistake. And that's one sign of them being smart. It shows that they can 'know' what they don't know - which previously was only thought possible if you were Donald Rumsfeld or had a language that let you talk to yourself about what you were thinking.

The monkey could even start making wagers: the more confident it was, the more it would stake on a correct answer. And the less confident, the less it would wager. It's a small step from there to a successful career playing Blackjack at a casino.




Molly, getting as close as she can to the books
Molly, getting as close as she can to the books.



The article picks a number of 'types' of intelligence:
  • Tool Use
  • Empathy and Emotions
  • Imitation
  • Metacognition (choosing "I don't know" when they are unsure)
  • Language
  • Mirror Recognition
  • Theory of Mind (having insight into the thinking of others. Chimps show this.)

Now, our cats show all sorts of interesting behaviour, but they certainly don't score 7 out of 7.
  • Tool Use

    Maybe. At a stretch. Molly shows intense interest in pencils. Oscar will happily play soccer for hours. Admittedly, Molly hasn't yet composed any works of art. And, good though he is, Oscar probably isn't going to join the Socceroos any time soon.
  • Empathy and Emotions

    Yeah: I'm sure they show sympathy. In that aloof 'cat' sort of way. They certainly show emotions. Especially jealousy. (Did you know that there are tests that seem to show that rats can laugh? I'm not sure that laughing is an emotion ever shown by cats. This probably indicates that there's more truth in Tom and Jerry than you'd ever suppose.)
  • Imitation

    Oscar and I can play "up and down the apartment" for hours. I run up one end of the apartment, and he follows. I then run down the other end of the apartment, and he follows. Then, for a change, I run up to the original end of the apartment again, and, like clockwork, he follows me again. So far in the longest session of this game we went from one end to the other 45 times. But by the end of it we both exhibited another form of intelligence: this was a silly game that was going nowhere new. So, by mutual agreement we decided to finish the game at 45 trips.
    We also play "miaow/miaow" games. He goes "miaow", and then I go "miaow". So he goes "miaow" and then I go "miaow". And ditto, ditto... It goes on for long enough that I suspect that we are both fighting to make the last "miaow".
  • Metacognition (choosing "I don't know" when they are unsure)

    I dunno.
  • Language

    The longer we live with Molly and Oscar, the better we get at this language thing. Although they are both the same size, and brother and sister, we are now (usually) able to distinguish between them without having to look. After a few more years we might even start understanding what they are saying. 'Cos I'm sure their miaows have meaning.
  • Mirror Recognition

    They recognise mirrors. And they watch television with great interest, even though they often tell us that there aren't nearly enough programs about birds.
  • Theory of Mind

    Well no. No sign of this. They are only cats after all.

PS: The Dolphin was doing really well with its tests. But we'll never know just how intelligent it was, since a movie career interrupted the experiments. Just as he was getting good at telling scientists when it wasn't sure, he got snapped up for a role in Hollywood. Presumably for a singing Dolphin musical.



Oscar. Would be Soccaroo.
Oscar. Would be Soccaroo.

Comments (0)
Anthony Holmes December 23rd, 2006 10:41:29 PM

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