Is Smarter Better?

May 7, 2008 at 4:38 am 1 comment


I have two dogs.  One is brilliant, the other not so much. 

Does being smarter make Audie a better dog than Zip? 

I’m not sure that it does.   In fact, I suspect that Zip’s poor skills in problem solving give her a distinct edge in excelling at much of the work she does for me.  Zip isn’t creative, she’s content to follow the rules.  She’s wonderfully dependable.

Audie is usually one step ahead of the game.  While this means that he picks up new skills very quickly, it also means that he can figure things on his own.  Sometimes this is a good thing, others times its not.  That energy, enthusiasm and creativity make for a young dog that requires a lot of supervision.  He’s brilliant, but not particularly reliable.

In today’s New York Times reporter Carl Zimmer quoted Tadeusz Kawecki, from the University of Fribourg who said:

“If it’s so great to be smart, why have most animals remained dumb?”

So, is braininess not all it’s cracked up to be?  And is it even necessary?  According to the Times:

It is possible to adapt to a changing environment without using a nervous system to learn. Bacteria can alter behavior to help their survival. If a microbe senses a toxin, it can swim away. If it senses a new food, it can switch genes on and off to alter its metabolism.

“A genetic network like the one in E. coli is amazingly good in changing environments,” Dr. Dukas said.

Learning also turns out to have dangerous side effects that make its evolution even more puzzling. Dr. Kawecki and his colleagues have produced striking evidence for these side effects by studying flies as they evolve into better learners in the lab.

 The article goes on to say:

It takes just 15 generations under these conditions for the flies to become genetically programmed to learn better. At the beginning of the experiment, the flies take many hours to learn the difference between the normal and quinine-spiked jellies. The fast-learning strain of flies needs less than an hour.

But the flies pay a price for fast learning. Dr. Kawecki and his colleagues pitted smart fly larvae against a different strain of flies, mixing the insects and giving them a meager supply of yeast to see who would survive. The scientists then ran the same experiment, but with the ordinary relatives of the smart flies competing against the new strain. About half the smart flies survived; 80 percent of the ordinary flies did.

 So, being smarter (or at least being better at learning how to differentiate good from bad food based on taste and/or odor) wasn’t better for the flies in the experiment.  The study didn’t discover the reason for the smart flies poorer survival rate under the changed conditions of the second part of the experiment.  Did growing and maintaining extra neutrons use up too much energy?  Did enhanced abilities to detect the right food more rapidly come at the cost of other sensory functions?  Did the flies become less persistent instead of smarter, or did those nerdy pocket protectors just get in the way?

Dr. Kawecki suspects that each species evolves until it reaches an equilibrium between the costs and benefits of learning. His experiments demonstrate that flies have the genetic potential to become significantly smarter in the wild. But only under his lab conditions does evolution actually move in that direction. In nature, any improvement in learning would cost too much.

Do we only evolve to be as smart as we need to be, or — has research focused too finely on the small and easily differentiated bits of behavior that we believe defines smartness?

And what exactly does it mean to be smart?  After all, we been trying unsuccessfully for centuries to define just exactly what intelligence is. Is it the ability to acquire new information and to adjust to new circumstances?  Is it the ability to solve complex problems?  Is it a combination of both — or something else?

Its not a simple answer.  Intelligence involves a complex suite of physiological characteristics, data storage/retrieval capabilities and environmental factors.  And not only is it hard for us to define, but we must also be careful not to assume that the cognitive skills that we value or choose to label as intelligence are those valued or recognized in another species.


Entry filed under: animals, behavior science, dog, dogs, science.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Audie's Gramma  |  May 7, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Jah — Zip has great *social* intelligence.

    Try living with a dog who has few problem-solving skills, almost zero impulse control, stratospherically high working drives, and is socially stupid.

    She’s out in the kennel right now, ostensibly Thinking About What She Did. But I doubt it. If the wheels are turning at all, the gears have not engaged.

    She periodically gets the notion that, as largest dog in the household, she ought to be Alpha Bitch. She attempts to accomplish this (twice now) by jumping the real canine alpha out of the blue — no posturing or testing, just POW.

    And then every creature in the house comes down on her like the wrath of the Almighty.

    As I told her this time, if she tried to pull that crap when I wasn’t there, the other four would KILL HER.

    We’re now taking steps to maintain her as the permanent Omega animal, because she’s not socially suited to any rank, and she’s too socially dumb to figure this out. (These two realities are a sort of chicken and egg problem.) Pack harmony is so important to us, if she wasn’t such a good SAR dog, her future here would be a good deal more tenuous.

    This dog was easy to obedience train, presented virtually none of the ordinary challenges in SAR training, and is otherwise generally easy to live with, though hella-annoying in a working situation when she is not actually on-task.

    It’s social intelligence that, at minimum, keeps our conspecifics from killing us. In larger doses, it creates calm, confident leaders and contented followers who can avoid being pushovers. It’s social intelligence that makes Zip a great trainer’s sidekick.

    I’ve had one dog who had a combination of scary-smart problem-solving intelligence, uncanny social intelligence, and a sweetness and benevolence of nature whose depths could not be plumbed. There will never be another.

    But Mel matured slowly. That combination (along with high working drive and a tremendous ego) is a lot for any being to handle — it took a couple years to gel. She was a real PITA as a young dog.

    You may find that smart Audie develops his social intelligence over the next year, gets his act together as his hormones settle down a bit, and becomes *reliable* — which is a bit different from dependable.

    You can *depend* on a less creative dog to do what you expect. You can *rely* on a creative, problem-solving dog who is also socially smart to do what you *need.*

    Which is not always what you just asked for.

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