Humans are not smarter than animals - we just don't understand them

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Evolutionary biologists claim some animals may actually have superior cognitive abilities than tose possessed by humans

For many years, humans have believed we are the most intelligent beings on the planet. However, evolutionary biologists are now claiming that some members of the animal kingdom may in fact have superior brains - we just don't recognise their intelligence.

Scientists at the University of Adelaide argue that evidence is emerging to suggest some animals actually have cognitive faculties that are superior to those possessed by human beings.

“For millennia, all kinds of authorities – from religion to eminent scholars – have been repeating the same idea ad nauseam, that humans are exceptional by virtue and that they are the smartest in the animal kingdom,” says Dr Arthur Saniotis, Visiting Research Fellow with the University's School of Medical Sciences.

"The belief of human cognitive superiority became entrenched in human philosophy and sciences. Even Aristotle, probably the most influential of all thinkers, argued that humans were superior to other animals due to our exclusive ability to reason.

“However, science tells us that animals can have cognitive faculties that are superior to human beings.”

Dr Saniotis said although animal rights began rising to prominence in the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution may have forestalled any gains made in our awareness of other animals.

Professor Maciej Henneberg, a professor of anthropological and comparative anatomy from the School of Medical Sciences, highlighted the different abilities of animals that are misunderstood by humans.

He said: “Many quadrupeds leave complex olfactory marks in their environment, and some, like koalas, have special pectoral glands for scent marking. Humans, with their limited sense of smell, can't even gauge the complexity of messages contained in olfactory markings, which may be as rich in information as the visual world.

"The fact that they may not understand us, while we do not understand them, does not mean our 'intelligences' are at different levels, they are just of different kinds. When a foreigner tries to communicate with us using an imperfect, broken, version of our language, our impression is that they are not very intelligent. But the reality is quite different," Professor Henneberg says.

Prof Henneberg said another factor contributing to our belief was our fixation of technology and language, which have caused us to under-rate the different intelligences held by animals. "These include social and kinaesthetic intelligence. Some mammals, like gibbons, can produce a large number of varied sounds - over 20 different sounds with clearly different meanings that allow these arboreal primates to communicate across tropical forest canopy. The fact that they do not build houses is irrelevant to the gibbons.”

He said domestic pets are also a prime example of the mental abilities of mammals and birds, because of their ability to communicate their demands to us and make us do things for them. "The animal world is much more complex than we give it credit for," he said. 

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