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See Inside April 2006

Why Are Some Animals So Smart?

The unusual behavior of orangutans in a Sumatran swamp suggests a surprising answer

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Even though we humans write the textbooks and may justifiably be suspected of bias, few doubt that we are the smartest creatures on the planet. Many animals have special cognitive abilities that allow them to excel in their particular habitats, but they do not often solve novel problems. Some of course do, and we call them intelligent, but none are as quick-witted as we are.

What favored the evolution of such distinctive brainpower in humans or, more precisely, in our hominid ancestors? One approach to answering this question is to examine the factors that might have shaped other creatures that show high intelligence and to see whether the same forces might have operated in our forebears. Several birds and nonhuman mammals, for instance, are much better problem solvers than others: elephants, dolphins, parrots, crows. But research into our close relatives, the great apes, is surely likely to be illuminating.

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