Why are Some Animals so Smart? [Preview]

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

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.

Scholars have proposed many explanations for the evolution of intelligence in primates, the lineage to which humans and apes belong (along with monkeys, lemurs and lorises). Over the past 13 years, though, my groups studies of orangutans have unexpectedly turned up a new explanation that we think goes quite far in answering the question.

Incomplete Theories

ONE INFLUENTIAL ATTEMPT at explaining primate intelligence credits the complexity of social life with spurring the development of strong cognitive abilities. This Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis suggests that success in social life relies on cultivating the most profitable relationships and on rapidly reading the social situation--for instance, when deciding whether to come to the aid of an ally attacked by another animal. Hence, the demands of society foster intelligence because the most intelligent beings would be most successful at making self-protective choices and thus would survive to pass their genes to the next generation. Machiavellian traits may not be equally beneficial to other lineages, however, or even to all primates, and so this notion alone is unsatisfying.

One can easily envisage many other forces that would promote the evolution of intelligence, such as the need to work hard for ones food. In that situation, the ability to figure out how to skillfully extract hidden nourishment or the capacity to remember the perennially shifting locations of critical food items would be advantageous, and so such cleverness would be rewarded by passing more genes to the next generation.

My own explanation, which is not incompatible with these other forces, puts the emphasis on social learning. In humans, intelligence develops over time. A child learns primarily from the guidance of patient adults. Without strong social--that is, cultural--inputs, even a potential wunderkind will end up a bungling bumpkin as an adult. We now have evidence that this process of social learning also applies to great apes, and I will argue that, by and large, the animals that are intelligent are the ones that are cultural: they learn from one another innovative solutions to ecological or social problems. In short, I suggest that culture promotes intelligence.

I came to this proposition circuitously, by way of the swamps on the western coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where my colleagues and I were observing orangutans. The orangutan is Asias only great ape, confined to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra and known to be something of a loner. Compared with its more familiar relative, Africas chimpanzee, the red ape is serene rather than hyperactive and reserved socially rather than convivial. Yet we discovered in them the conditions that allow culture to flourish.

Technology in the Swamp

WE WERE INITIALLY attracted to the swamp because it sheltered disproportionately high numbers of orangutans--unlike the islands dryland forests, the moist swamp habitat supplies abundant food for the apes year-round and can thus support a large population. We worked in an area near Suaq Balimbing in the Kluet swamp [see map below], which may have been paradise for orangutans but, with its sticky mud, profusion of biting insects, and oppressive heat and humidity, was hell for researchers.

or subscribe to access other articles from the June 2006 publication.
Digital Issue $9.99
Digital Issue + All Access Subscription $99.99 Subscribe
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Email this Article