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13.6.04

René Descats and Jürgen Dogermas

I don't post them often, since -- as a total non-expert -- I don't have much to add. But I'm fascinated by stories like this one about animal intelligence:

German Pet's Vocabulary Stuns Scientists

In the first experiment, the researchers put 10 of Rico's toys in one room and Rico [a border collie] and his owner in another. The investigators then instructed the owner to order Rico to fetch two randomly selected items. As Rico ran into the other room and began searching for the items, he could not have picked up any hints from his owner because the owner was out of sight.

In 40 tests, Rico got it right 37 times, demonstrating he had a vocabulary comparable to dolphins, apes, sea lions and parrots that have undergone extensive training.

... "This tells us he can do simple logic," Fischer said in a telephone interview. "It's like he's saying to himself, 'I know the others have names, so this new word cannot refer to my familiar toys. It must refer to this new thing.' Or it goes the other way around, and he's thinking, 'I've never seen this one before, so this must be it.' He's actually thinking."


Unlike Phillip Carter (from whose post I got this story), I'm more of a cat person than a dog person. (Unfortunately, between my landlord's paranoia and the rarity of my trips home, I'm more of an aspiring cat person than a real one*.) So I wonder whether cats could match dogs on the intelligence score.

It seems like the stereotypical cat-dog difference could be an issue here. Dogs are "man's best friend" because they're pack animals. They come to see humans as their pack leaders, who they're eager to please and to learn from. So dogs have a built-in incentive to do their best at whatever test we create for them. Since the test is being designed by humans to look for signs of "intelligence" as humans understand it, it's bound to be an anthropocentric test. Consider a detail like the use of spoken language for giving Rico instructions, as opposed to something -- a code of head-nodding or a bee-like dance, perhaps -- that he could "speak" back to us directly (a la the use of sign language with apes). Being a dog, Rico is predisposed to make the effort to think like a person. Cats, it seems, would be less likely to care about helping us with our tests. We'd have to put more effort into learning Cat rather than relying on teaching them Human.

Some of Carter's other links refer to the phenomenon of dogs coming to resemble their owners (tragically, in the case of the dogs at Abu Ghraib). That dogs would do this is easy to understand -- being pack animals, they have an inbuilt capacity for socialization. Cats, on the other hand, are naturally solitary. This raises two questions:

1. How much of cats' famed aloofness is learned, how much is imputed, and how much is natural? We know that humans often become what others expect them to be. And of course we tend to see what we expect. So it seems possible that cats could be more doglike, but their owners have unconsciously trained them to act more like "proper" cats. The reverse may hold true with dogs -- that their individuality is often stifled because their owners emphasize their sociability, effectively brainwashing them.

2. Initially, I thought that cats' lesser sociability might be a factor suggesting that they would be less intelligent than dogs. As solitary animals, they would have developed less need, opportunity, and capacity for learning from, and communicating with, each other. But of course, that need not be the only type of intelligence. Dogs, like humans, exhibit a basically discursive form of intelligence, of the type described by late modern and postmodern thinkers like Habermas. Cats, on the other hand, may posess a more monologic form of intelligence, resembling early modern or classic Enlightenment ideas about the solitary mind introspecting and interacting with an objective environment. In other words, Descartes wanted to be a cat.

*I'm also an aspiring rabbit person, although I've thus far heard nothing to indicate that rabbits are particularly intelligent. A Google search turns up some stuff, but it's mostly anecdotal, and I'm wary of people's tendency to anthropomorphize things that are important in their lives (like a pet).

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