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Learning To Recognize Animal Intelligence

a brown falcon, perched on the ground
A brown falcon, seen in Victoria, Australia. Photo by Flickr user Patrick_K59.

There is an argument to be made that nothing travels farther on social media than animals.

I had already seen coverage of the news that some Australian birds appear to purposely set fires in order to flush prey animals out of the underbrush when the story cropped up again recently in my Facebook feed. Based on some of the comments, many people seemed surprised by this discovery. My reaction was more along the lines of: “Well, of course.”

However, I do promise to be surprised if I ever hear that a bird has started a fire in order to collect the insurance proceeds.

Preliminary evidence and eyewitness reports have indicated that the brown falcon and the black kite, birds that regularly hunt at the edges of wildfires, have picked up smoldering pieces of brush and dropped them in new areas in an effort to smoke out the frogs, lizards and snakes that make up the birds’ food source. Researchers are now working to record video of the phenomenon, both in Australia and in other places.

Purposefully setting fires has now joined tool use, complex emotions and altruism on the list of characteristics we once thought of as exclusively human but that have since been observed elsewhere in the animal kingdom too. We have known for decades that some animals are incredibly smart; we are only gathering more evidence the more we observe.

Living in the wilderness known as “southern Westchester County,” I have long suspected an alliance between my street’s crow population and the local raccoons. The raccoons provide the muscle, opening our trash cans and helping themselves to the high-calorie junk food, and then the crows come along and pick out the delicacies, along with interesting and useful baubles like old string and aluminum foil. When I come out of the house in the morning, the crows are gathered in the nearby trees, seeming to laugh as I collect the debris strewn about my vast estate, which I long ago nicknamed “hell’s quarter-acre.”

While the crows may be the brains behind that partnership, the raccoons are smart enough to know that if they make too big of a mess, my neighbors and I will resort to more extreme garbage lockdown technology. They have grown adept at taking the lids off, neatly climbing into the garbage can, taking what they want and not making much of a mess at all. I have come out to discover a thoroughly gnawed T-bone, the remnants of the prior night’s dinner, left neatly on the driveway beside an upright garbage can.

Suburban scavengers aside, Homo sapiens is gradually realizing that it does not hold a monopoly on intelligence, self-awareness or (depending on how one defines the term) language. While I am no expert, it has become clear through many carefully controlled and documented studies on numerous species that, in their own ways, other creatures are able to analyze and seek to alter their environments. Other species also have the capacity to plan an action before executing it, with the intention of achieving a particular goal, and can learn from the consequences of actions that do not go according to plan. I have known parents who wished they could say as much about their teenagers.

There is, of course, a set of ethical questions raised by our growing appreciation of other species’ capabilities and the realization that we are not as special as we once believed. In many societies, including our own, the protection of cetaceans and other marine mammals is largely justified by our awareness of their high intelligence and relatively complex social structures. In other societies, eating these animals for food is relatively uncommon but ethically acceptable.

But what will it mean if we realize a honey bee boasts a highly evolved capacity for memory? Or that an octopus demonstrates substantial reasoning abilities? You could argue that harvesting honey does not harm the bees, and that cutting octopus out of their diet would not challenge most Americans. But pigs, a staple food source here and in many other cultures, demonstrate a sense of self and high levels of emotional intelligence; what then?

Proposing a vegetarian diet may not be enough of a solution, depending on what characteristics we are considering. Forest trees may share resources and even some very basic communication through a fungal network some scientists call the “wood-wide web.” If we discover previously unknown imperatives for communication and self-preservation in plants, might we feel pressure to become a new sort of ultra-vegan, eating only what we can chemically create in a lab? Or might we take the approach of the wolf, who does not ask himself whether the rabbit is intelligent as he is, but thinks only of dinner?

These are both extreme positions, of course, and many reasonable people occupy a middle ground between them. For instance, some people may choose to keep eating animals, but also to work toward agricultural reforms so that food animals are raised under more humane conditions. Existing debates on whether and how to use animals in scientific research, the ethical implications of zoos and aquatic parks, and the use of animal products such as fur and leather will all surely be complicated by the growing body of knowledge around animal intelligence and the inner lives of nonhuman species.

Learning more about animal intelligence also has enormous implications for how we structure our own society. As we build artificially intelligent machines, a broader understanding of how intelligence expresses itself in nature will add depth and nuance to those technical capabilities. Understanding how animals store and process information may also help us to address the diminished capacities we often see in our own old age, when we may remember long-ago events with perfect clarity even as we repeat ourselves over and over in conversation.

Watching birds set deliberate fires is part of our process of appreciating the intelligence that appears in the world around us. You might say we’re getting smarter about it.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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