Monday, December 3, 2018

Animal Intelligence (and Dinosaur Dumbness)

Last night Andrew and I had a discussion about how smart dinosaurs were, because married life is awesome.

If you've seen a Jurassic Park movie, then you probably assume they're at least smart enough to open doors and teach man ironic lessons about the dangers of tampering in God's domain.  But I own a lizard and she's as dumb as the rock she spends 99% of her time on.

Shout out to Domingo!

She is basically a carbon-based robot, operating on a series of reflexes firing through her dumb lizard brain.  Because she lacks a frontal lobe, she also lacks the ability to have complex emotions or advanced reasoning processes.


So I'm of the opinion that dinosaurs, which existed taxonomically between lizards and birds, were probably pretty dumb.

Yet Andrew points out that some birds are wickedly smart.  Who's to say there couldn't have been one species of dinosaur that grasped tool use, or developed self-awareness?  Could the fossil record have told us this?

More importantly, how does one even quantify intelligence?

Humans, always the center of our own universe, generally try to quantify it using the things we value.  Among these are language, tool use, and complex societal structures.


This makes parrots absolutely goddamn geniuses.  Parrots can use tools; they have language (including using distinctive noises to refer to other parrots; ie, they have names); they live in flocks with impressive social hierarchies.  Plus, a parrot is the only animal alive to have ever asked an existential question.  Alex the African Grey famously asked, "What color am I?"

Crows are smart enough to ask existential questions big enough to prompt existential crises.
No, but seriously, crows have been observably brilliant since the 2nd century.

You might point to chimps, gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, or other apes as language-capable animals.  But no ape has ever asked a question.  It's worth noting, though, that through teaching apes sign language, we've discovered their capacity for metaphorial language, as well as a remarkable level of empathy that indicates fairly developed Theory of Mind.

Look no further for this than Koko the gorilla, who was famous for having a kitten named All Ball.  Koko was asked what she wanted for Christmas, and was offered a catalogue.  She pointed to a picture of a woman holding a kitten.  They got her a large toy kitten, which apparently enraged her; she signed "THAT RED" at the toy and continue to demand a kitten.  Out of curiosity, they offered her a litter of live kittens.  Koko picked out a kitten that she named All Ball (in the same way that "red" meant anger to her, "ball" meant "good") and with whom she gently played until All Ball's death six months later (she was hit by a car).

Watch this video of Koko learning of her kitten's death for maximum emotional whammies.

Although Koko was famous for her pets (she had several more kittens after All Ball), Koko was also remarkably good at language for a gorilla.  She could put together two words to form a third, to describe an item that she did not know the name of.  For example, she called a ring a "finger bracelet" and a mask an "eye hat."

 I once forgot the word for "fork" and called it a "food trident."

Koko was self-aware and could recognize herself in the mirror.   And Koko was capable of deception; when asked if she'd torn a sink out of the wall, she blamed her kitten.

"Me fine animal gorilla."  - actual Koko quote

Or take the gorilla Washoe, whose caretaker informed her that she (the caretaker) had miscarried.  Washoe had been angry at the caretaker for a long absence; after being informed that the caretaker had lost a baby, she signed "CRY," a gesture of sympathy all the more surprising because gorillas do not shed tears.  Like Koko, Washoe was capable of putting together two concepts to form a third; she signed duck as "water bird."  Like Koko, Washoe could look in a mirror and sign, "Me, Washoe."

Obviously, humans tend to underestimate animal intelligence overall; we put apes on a pedestal because they look like us and are more familiar, but scientists have found that there are other animals with more complex language than chimps who we never thought to try to communicate with.  Rats, elephants, and pigs all have some form of rudimentary language.  But elephants communicate using infrasound, and rats using ultrasound, so we never noticed.  Rats noticed us talking, though, and they can tell apart separate human languages.  And don't even get me started on whales and dolphins.  And what's more, elephants appear to have grammar, and orcas have pod-specific dialects to their language, indicating that the language is evolving.


Let's also not forget that elephants, at least, also have some understanding of their own mortality, something humans have been trying to teach gorillas for a while.


As far as tool use goes, it's not limited to birds or apes... or even vertebrates.  Octopi can and have used tools.  Also octopi, namely Paul the octopus, showed above-human capability in predicting World Cup outcomes.

So, getting back to dinosaurs.  Could they, like Paul, have predicted the outcome of 12 out of 14 soccer matches correctly?   Probably not.  The fossil records shows that most dinosaur brains more closely resembled lizards than birds, and that the World Cup wasn't around yet.  Measuring brain-to-body size ratio is a common shorthand for measuring intelligence, but there's more to it than that.  Earth's atmosphere used to have less oxygen and the brain is a famously oxygen-guzzling organ, meaning that dinosaurs, regardless of brain size, would never have been able to use those brains.

If you're disappointed, never fear.  Half of the Wikipedia article about dinosaur intelligence talks about fictional anthropomorphic intelligent dinosaurs and includes a horrifying picture.

 Don't remember this from ZooBooks...

In the end, Andrew asked me if it was within the realm of possibility that dinosaurs might have been more intelligent than we've given them credit for.  My belief?  Almost certainly.  Humans underestimate living animals all the time.  Dinosaurs are no exception.  But dinosaurs were unlikely to have ever reached the ability to ask an existential question, as Alex did, or contemplate themselves in a mirror, as Koko and Washoe could.

And having millions and millions of years to evolve did not mean advancement was inevitable; an animal that is perfect for its environment has no need to evolve.  Alligators are one such example of a dumb yet perfect animal; they are apex predators and very effective creatures, and Mother Nature prefers not to mess with success.  Alligators have been idiot murder logs for 8 million years.  Dinosaurs had three distinct periods during the Mesozoic era (four, if you include the paleozoic era) to build themselves spaceships, and did they?  No.

 Goddammit.

Early fossil records for humans shows our intellectual development over time, measured by the complexity of our tools and the organization of our society.  Ancient burial plots show a consciousness of death in the same way elephant graveyards do.

But even without finding crafted artifacts or self-aware gravesites to demonstrate ancient intelligence, we can examine biological remains and draw some conclusions about intelligence based on brain structure alone.  The small brain casing of dinosaur skulls implies a lack of a frontal lobe in dinosaurs, and that does not bode well for the "smart dinosaur" argument.   Paleo-neurology supports what I suspected all along: Dinosaurs were dumb.  I think we can let the fossil record speak for itself.