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Monkeys Versus Dogs — More on Animal Intelligence

Writing here the other day, Sarah Chaffee set some limits to animal intelligence, including that of chimpanzees. Meanwhile our biologist friend Timothy Standish, whom you’ll know from numerous Illustra Media documentaries, offers some delightful and fascinating reflections on how a primate, a long-tailed macaque he once kept, compares to a less exotic companion, a dog. Dr. Standish is a lifelong pet owner, having raised and cared for a diverse range of animals. He writes:

When I was a child I had a pet monkey, a long-tailed macaque. How I got it is a long story and let’s just say that my mother still hasn’t quite recovered. The point is that this gave me an opportunity to become familiar with this particular kind of monkey and why you should never put yourself into a position where your mother might find your monkey in the kitchen. There was no doubt that it was a creature with some intelligence and curiosity. At the same time, I’m not convinced it was the smartest pet I’ve ever had. Its behavior would best be described as erratic. One minute it would appear to enjoy being groomed and then bite you in thanks. At other times, it would look you in the eye and for just a moment you would think there was a possibility of some kind of connection with this adorable brown-eyed creature, but then you would find yourself scratched and the fruit you were offering it gone, along with the monkey, to the top of a tree.

My monkey and his relatives, who lived in the park down the street, were smart in some ways; certainly smart enough to understand that food could be had from gullible humans. But they never demonstrated any ability to form a lasting relationship with other creatures and, sadly — despite my best efforts — that included me. In addition, you would think that these arboreal monkeys would have excellent abilities when it comes to solving problems in three dimensions. After all, they do climb and jump around in trees. This got me thinking about my dog Jill, who has never been up a tree in her life. In an animal behavior text I studied as an undergraduate it was claimed that dogs are incapable of solving certain 3D problems. It gave as an example a dog on a leash that was attached to a peg in the ground at the far end. To understand the problem, you have to visualize the peg to which the leash was attached, a tree and a food bowl forming points at the angles of an equilateral triangle. If the dog wants to get to the food, the leash is easily long enough, but if the dog goes around the far side of the tree, then tries to go to the food bowl, the leash isn’t long enough. So the leash is longer than one side of the triangle, but not two sides.

Tim offers the following illustration of the situation:

animal intelligence

Can a dog reach her food under these circumstances? He goes on:

The book asserted that dogs are not smart enough to figure out a problem like this by turning around, going back around the tree and then on to the food bowl. I don’t remember ever seeing my monkey solve a problem like that either, but I’ve not done a carefully controlled test to see if they can. However, my monkey did have endless problems getting its leash wrapped around the trunk of the tree. Interestingly, despite the textbook’s claim, my dog Jill routinely solves this problem when walking on a leash. I’ve seen her do it many times. In fact, there is one place where we cross the road where there is a pole. She could go to the right or the left of the pole and going to the right cuts the corner, which is something she usually likes to do. But in this particular case, she anticipates that if she goes to the right, she will be on one side of the pole, I’ll be on the other, and we will both go nowhere because the leash will be wrapped around the pole. In that spot, she inevitably anticipates the problem and goes to the left of the pole. It is pretty impressive to see her do this and I doubt that my monkey would have done anything of the sort. It would have been up and down the pole, out in the middle of the street, bitten me, then jumped, without warning, on a stranger. Oh yes, and pulled the neighbor’s washing off the line; but he wouldn’t have figured out the problem of the pole and the leash. At least I saw no evidence of it.

Another thing that Jill does is anticipating the next in a series of commands. If I tell her to sit, then shake, then stay, then catch she will do each command at the time I give it. However, if I repeat the same sequence of commands several times she quickly learns to anticipate the next one in the series. For example, when I just alternate between sit and shake, if I tell her to sit, she will offer to shake before I ask her to do so. The idea that a monkey would do this is pretty optimistic. Maybe some can, but mine gave no sign of that kind of intelligence. I’ve seen incredible intelligence in other dogs as well, then there have been some that were lovely, but quite dull.

My point is this: dogs give every indication of being able to solve some pretty complex challenges, such as anticipating sequences of commands and solving puzzles in space. In addition, they have the beautiful talent for forming what certainly seem to be genuine relationships with humans and other animals. My pet monkey was indisputably an interesting experience, one I’d do all over again, but I saw no sign of the kind of intelligence dogs routinely exhibit, like learning not to use the house as a toilet. I have had friends who had gibbons as pets and at least they didn’t bite. It is kind of thrilling to have them hanging onto you as you walk around, but again, they don’t seem overly intelligent. If they were in the house, it was only prudent to put a diaper on them and, if you were carrying them around, you had may as well anticipate laundering whatever you were wearing. Yes, intelligence is a very hard thing to quantify, but the continuum from mammal ancestors to monkeys doesn’t seem to indicate a trajectory of ever greater intelligence on the way to humans. While living monkeys are not considered human ancestors — we are all supposed to be equally evolved — if humans and monkeys shared a common ancestor, there is little evidence that the common ancestor was overly bright compared with a dog.

Note the punchline. Tim adds that he is amazed at the range of “wonderful” pets one can have. Agreed, isn’t that counter to expectation in a universe with “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference,” as Richard Dawkins and others would have it?

Sometimes I wonder if a significant proportion of the more ridiculous claims that come out about animal intelligence are actually generated by people who were denied pets as children. Who knows, but I’ve had the privilege of everything from salamanders to turtles to more conventional pets, like cats and dogs. I’ve also worked with horses and helped my father-in-law with his cattle. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an animal I didn’t like! Well, okay, mosquitos. Maybe I should say a vertebrate I didn’t find amazing. Even the cobras we used to have around our house were pretty interesting. They really are graceful creatures, and pretty smart.

Why “blind physical forces” alone (Dawkins again) would produce such a diversity of beautiful and charming animals, like living works of art, instead of Lovecraftian horror, is something I would love to hear a Darwinist address. Thanks to Tim Standish for his observations. And Jill…What a good dog you are!

Photo: Tim Standish and Jill enjoy a morning walk in sunny Southern California, courtesy of Dr. Standish.