Is Human Intelligence Special?

by admin on January 27, 2009

Our “You Animal!” show prompted this exhange between listener Chis Lehmann and Alex Kacelnik, a behavioral ecologist at Oxford University and guest on the program.

Bottom line: is human intelligence special (btw, we’ll cover more of this in the show coming up: “Feather Knows Best!”)?



Prof. Kacelnik,

I have a long and deep personal interest in the topic of what I call the human-animal relationship. Of course that includes the sub-topic of animal minds. Listening to you caused me to have an “aha” moment which shone some light on the struggle we (humans) have when discussing whether animals (non-human) have “intelligence.” Specifically, you said:

Just to show that an animal does something difficult does not mean that it does it having the same level of experience as we do. It is perfectly possible to do very complex things simply on the basis of simply very sophisticated programs of responding to the world.”

My “aha” insight was this: we always approach this from our human perspective and with lots of references to our own abilities. which we know so well from personal experience. We find it fairly easy to prove, or to create sufficient doubt that any other animal species has the ability to respond to the world in quite the same way we do. So … what if we turn the question around, look in the mirror and ask ourselves this question:

Q. Is human “intelligence” simply demonstrating a (more) complex programmed ability to respond to stimuli from the environment?

Prove to me that it is anything else. I mean this in the most sincere terms. If human intelligence is simply a more (differently) sophisticated form of programmed response to the environment, then we only differ from other species by degree.

Regards, Christopher J. Lehmann


Dr. Kacelnik’s response:

You are right, Chris, and chaps in AI (artificial intelligence) deal with the problem repeatedly. Ultimately, we vouch for us having mental experiences because each of us knows by introspection, but we can’t tell about others.

This is related to what is called the “hard problem” of the study of consciousness. We may even have awareness of what we do post hoc, namely we do it, as zombies, and then we know that we have done it and we tell ourselves that we did it for some great motive.

Hope this helps.

– A

P.S. Have a look at this:

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