Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Heuristic value of animal intelligence

The common idea that non-human animals are guided mostly or exclusively by ‘instinct’ or conditioned reflexes has never convinced me.

Granted, when we say ‘animals’ we use an extremely broad concept, that obviously comprises species hugely different from each other.

So, we must make distinctions here.

One of the reasons most usually given to deny that animal intelligence can be comparable to ours is to point to the animals’ not having created a visible, tangible form of it, some products.

They have not constructed buildings or written poems.

But think of dolphins, for example.

We know that dolphins are highly intelligent. Yet, how could they possibly have produced things like buildings or works of art?

The medium in which they live, primarily, and their lack of suitable limbs, a consequence of it, would have made it impossible.

Dolphins make me think of the situation in which a very intelligent human with physical disabilities might have been, possibly, in the past, when technology was not there to help. Such a person’s high intellect may have never been discovered.

I think that the best position to take on the question of the intelligence of other species is that we still do not know enough about it, in a general sense, to make a judgement. The jury is still out.

However, given this uncertainty, it is better to believe that, generally speaking, non-human animals are much more intelligent and self-aware than is commonly thought.


Because this work hypothesis has a higher heuristic value, that is it is more fertile in terms of the scientific theories and discoveries that it may lead to, than its alternative, the belief that there is nothing there to discover.

In science, when two hypotheses compete, then, coeteris paribus, ie if there is no clear reason to prefer one over the other, we should choose the hypothesis with greater heuristic potential.

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