Proof from Intelligence (6)


Out of all the suggested components to intelligence, this one is nearest to my heart. One of the most important books of my life was “The Creative Spirit,” based on a PBS series of the same name. While it was laughably optimistic about the transformative power of creativity, even the die-hard realist within me admits it is full of inspiring tales. Can’t get a finger around a tricky ledge while rock climbing? Flip upside-down and grab it with your toes. Have a beetle in both hands, and want to collect a third? A young Charles Darwin solved this problem by popping one into his mouth, with distasteful results. From realizing Benzene’s physical layout by daydreaming in front of the fire, to the joys of quiet contemplation via calligraphy, the younger me was opened up to an entire new way of thinking.

One that seems strangely absent in the rest of the animal kingdom. Coincidence?

I’d argue creativity is more common that you think. We tend to think of creativity in terms of the Picassos or Mozarts of the world, creative geniuses who towered over all their field. They’re so prominent, however, because they’re so uncommon; most creative output is actually done quietly, in the process of just living a life. That creative fix you made to one of your tools, or the novel arrangement of some flowers or words for your own enjoyment, are both examples of creativity in action, even though they won’t get you on the cover of a magazine.

And when you stop looking for a squirrel Picasso, you start seeing actual creativity. Solving novel problems qualifies, and I’ve already mentioned crows and octopuses that can managed that. There’s also the remarkable songbook of the Brown Thrasher.

Human play can be very creative, but that doesn’t mean all play is. Merely practising instincts that have been burnt in by evolution certainly shouldn’t count, for instance. That still leaves dolphin bubble games and crow sledding as valid examples, though.

Long-Range Planning

Would you like to visit a clock that will outlast your great-great-great grandchildren? The Long Now Foundation is hoping to build a clock inside the Snake mountain range, one that will run for 10,000 years. It will synchronize itself by using the sun, and chime differently for each new year. This is an extreme example of something we do every day. We plan our lives days, months, even years in advance. It’s difficult to picture any other species thinking this far ahead.

So instead, picture nothing.

Human beings navigate by sight and communicate by sound. Cut off both senses, and we’re helpless. Gathering food in that state would be impossible for us.

And yet killer whales can pull it off.

Vision is nearly useless in the ocean, so all whales use echolocation to navigate. This consists of sending out a loud sound, which bounces off rocks or animals and returns back some time later. By carefully analysing the returning sound, you can determine where something is and even what sort of texture it has. Unfortunately, this also broadcasts your location to the rest of the ocean, but there’s no other way to get around in the dark or communicate with your fellow whales.

“They go into stealth mode – completely silent,” said Dr Deecke. “This raises the question: how are they communicating?” It seems that orcas can carry out complex, co-ordinated mammal-hunting trips without “talking to each other” at all. “To cover a wider area, they fan out occasionally – travelling hundreds of metres, even kilometres apart, and they come back together again,” said Dr Deecke. Only once they catch their prey, does the noise – whistling and pulsing calls – begin. […]

Dr Deecke thinks that the orcas might “rehearse” their hunting routines, to learn the position of each group member. “They tend to be very predictable,” he said. “I often know exactly where they are going to surface.” How they manage this level of co-ordination is not clear. And the scientists plan to continue their research by fitting sound recording and satellite tracking tags to individual orcas to follow their behaviour much more closely. Dr Deecke said: “It seems like there’s no way for them to communicate without their prey being able to eavesdrop.”

(“Killer whales hunt in silent ‘stealth mode’,” by Victoria Gill. BBC News, March 3rd 2011. )

While killer whales may not be able to talk, they can still hear perfectly fine. If they’ve been through an area before, they can verify there’s no obstacles in their way. Even with those advantages, however, those whales still need to swim in a straight line for kilometres at a time, with no external reference points to guide them; keep track of time, so they know when to stop and regroup; and somehow negotiate and share all this with their fellow pod members. It’s a formidable show of long-range planning.

Primates, of course, also do quite well for themselves. Santino, a chimp at a zoo in Stockholm, Sweden, has been observed methodically going around his cage before the public arrives, knocking on the walls and fake boulders. Water can seep into them, freeze and expand during winter, and slowly break them into smaller chunks. Once Santino stumbles on such a weak spot, he pounds harder and breaks off little bits of concrete, which he then hides in convenient places near the visitor area.

Much later, while asserting his dominance over the unimpressed humans on the other side of the cage, he’ll reach into one of these caches and convince them he means business with a few projectiles. Zoo-keepers usually find and remove these piles before they become missiles, but Santino has managed to keep surprising them for over twelve years.

One example stands out. Santino’s zoo is only open from June until August each year, although they offer pre-season guided tours as early as May. During the first of those pre-season tours in 2010, the guides spotted Santino making threat displays at the edge of his pen and waving around a bit of concrete he’d just pried loose, so they were careful to keep well out of his range. The same thing happened during the next two tours. On the fourth, the eagle-eyed guides found a calm Santino in the middle of the pen, albeit with a concrete projectile in each hand. Since the dominance freak-out always came before he threw anything, they risked a close-up visit to the enclosure. Santino seemed mildly curious about the newcomers, and lazily ambled his way toward the group. The instant he got within throwing distance, though, he did exactly that. Santino gave the hapless tour no warning, and only after things started flying did he start flipping out and asserting his dominance.[55]


Santino could only have pulled that off by getting inside the mind of his keepers. And understanding others is the definition of interpersonal intelligence. There’s no doubt human beings are very good at this, but there’s also no doubt we’re but one of many social species on the planet. To survive, members of those species must have some understanding of other creatures.

What would be more impressive was if we could find a species that not only recognized others, but could tell if those others were in need and help them.


In other words, can other species be altruistic?

The gold standard for altruistic behaviour is food sharing; in the wild, every calorie is sacred, a little insurance against a potential future famine. Researchers were unable to find this form of altruism in other animals, so it seemed safe to declare it a human-only activity. They were reassured by the chimpanzee, our closest cousin and a consistent foe of anyone who’d declare “other animals can’t do this,” which had never been spotted sharing its food.[56]

 So there was a lot of surprise when Gerald S. Wilkinson discovered that vampire bats share food. Females will regurgitate blood for their infants, if they had a bad hunt that night, but will also do it for unrelated pups or even other females. Many bats will pair up and share food with one another, even if they aren’t related. All of this is very deliberate. Studies have shown they consistently share with other bats they know, and avoid the strangers who could easily take advantage of this kindness.

Since then, many more examples have come to light.[57] Birds will help each other by mobbing predators to drive them off,[58] walruses will adopt unrelated orphans,[59] while bonobos[60] and dolphins[61] [62] will aid injured animals. To elaborate on that last one, dolphins will push the injured party to the surface to ensure they won’t drown, they will protect them if an predator shows up, and are more than willing to slow down their pace to match that of the hurt animal.[63]

In case that isn’t sufficiently astonishing, dolphins will do the above for animals of another species.[64]

Cross-species Altruism

We as a species have moved well past altruism. We’re also generous to other animals, in ways ranging from bird feeders to wildlife refuges, and ask for little to nothing in return. Surely no other mammal… oh right, dolphins.

Chimps have also pulled off this feat. Felix Warneken and a team from the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology enacted a little play in front of chimpanzees; two humans had a brief tug-of-war with a stick, with the victor deliberately placing it out of reach of the first person. That person then requested help from the chimp. While our ape cousins had a rough time with indirect requests (in this case, a longing gaze at the object), when the hapless victim visibly reached for the object they were rewarded about 40% of the time, even when the grateful Homo Sapiens Sapiens offered no reward in return.

A second experiment, involving just the most generous apes from the first, showed that half the time chimps were willing to run an obstacle course to help said human, even though no reward was hinted at. A third showed that chimps could tell the difference between a legit and bogus request for help, and were willing to help a strange ape four times out of five if the request was legit. Plunking human children down in similar situations led to similar results.[65]

We have no shortage of examples here. News departments love to print stories about dogs adopting cats,[66] a tiger adopting piglets or a pig adopting tiger cubs,[67] an elephant becoming best friends with a dog,[68] leopards chumming it up with dogs, vicious polar bears carrying on long-term relationships with dogs, turtles looking after hippos, and so on.[69]

[55]  Osvath M, Karvonen E (2012) Spontaneous Innovation for Future Deception in a Male Chimpanzee. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36782. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036782 .

[56]  Notice I’m using the past tense here.

[57]  I’m exaggerating the “surprise” part a little. There are good evolutionary reasons for altruism, in theory, which I discuss a little in my section on the Morality proof. The lack of evidence was a big concern, though, since science has always ranked evidence above theory, in theory anyway.

[58] “Experimental evidence of reciprocal altruism in the pied flycatcher ,” Indrikis Krams et al. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, February 2008.

[59] “Protection and Abuse Of Young in Pinnipeds ,” Burney J. Le Boeuf and Claudio Campagnn. Infanticide and parental care , 1994, pg. 261




[63] “Are Dolphins Reciprocal Altruists?,” Richard C. Connor and Kenneth S. Norris. The American Naturalist, Vol. 119, No. 3 (Mar., 1982), pp. 358-374.


[65] “Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children,” Felix Warneken et al. PLoS Biology, June 26, 2007.