Over the past decade, experiments on animal intelligence—involving primarily chimps and elephants—have found that cognition is a more dynamic process than we once thought and that animals may be far more clever than we have historically given them credit for. In 2007, a young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University put human memory to shame. “Trained on a touch screen, Ayumu could recall a random series of nine numbers, from 1 to 9, and tap them in the right order, even though the numbers had been displayed for just a fraction of a second and then replaced with white squares.”
What’s the Big Idea?
For years, scientists believed that elephants were incapable of using tools, such as sticks to fetch plates of food just out of reach, but that may be because it’s not a tool elephants find useful. In more recent tests, elephants were quick to use a wooden block to reach food tied above their heads (it is thought that grasping sticks closes an elephant’s trunk, an essential sensory organ and therefore one they are extremely hesitant to give up). The lesson is that our view of human intelligence appears to have been too exclusive, dating all the way back to ancient Greece. When we meet animals on their terms, many species turn out to be quite clever.