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Nov 20

Are We Really the Smartest Species?

Homo sapiens are regarded as far and away the smartest species on the planet. So much so, that religious people have thought for centuries that man’s place in the universe is something special. Even, that the universe must in some way be created for us. No other species has the control over nature that we do, the tools we use, or our scientific understanding. We are a complete outlier when it comes to intelligence.

Or are we?

How do scientists compare intelligence across species? One way to do this is brain size. While obviously not a perfect correlation, intelligence does correlate to the size of your brain, even between humans. So who has the biggest brains in the world? Whales. Ok, just looking at brain size is not such a great way to measure intelligence, because the larger your body the more brain power needed to control it.  A better measure is what scientists call the encephalization quotient, which is roughly a measure of brain size relative to what you would expect for an animal that size.

Here are the rankings of extant animals species..

Species     EQ
Human             7.44
Dolphin             5.31
Chimpanzee     2.49
Raven             2.49
Rhesus monkey     2.09
Elephant             1.87
Baleen whale     1.76
Dog                     1.17
Cat                     1.00
Horse             0.86
Sheep             0.81
Mouse             0.50
Rat                0.40
Rabbit             0.40

Seems like a fairly accurate measure of intelligence right? Now, what jumps out at you when looking at this chart? Dolphins. Woah.

Here is a good TED video on how smart dolphins are.  Research shows that dolphins can problem solve novel tasks, have metacognition- meaning they are aware of their own thoughts – For instance in one study dolphins were able to tell researchers whether they knew something was correct or wrong (“Are these two sounds the same or different”?),  or if they weren’t sure if they were right. Dolphins also have complex emotions, senses of empathy, altruism, and attachment. They mourn their dead. Each dolphin has it’s own individual name.

They also come up with ingenious ways to hunt fish. See here..this is truly incredible.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzfqPQm-ThU

Q:But Jevan, if dolphins are so smart, how come they don’t have iPhones?

A: Would you have an iPhone if you lived underwater and had no hands? No matter how smart dolphins are, how can they invent complex tools with only fins?

But still, homo sapiens EQ is higher than dolphins, so we still must be the smartest species right? Not so fast, we have the highest EQ of existing animals. But perhaps not of all time. That prize may go to the neanderthals.

The average neanderthal brain weighed 1600g
The average modern human brain weighs between 1250-1400g

Neanderthals were bigger than us back then, which brings down their relative brain-to-weight ratio, but we have gotten so fat that North American males, on average, weigh more than the 77kg neanderthal. So who has the highest EQ of all time depends on how fat the sample of modern humans we take.

The good news for homo sapiens is that neanderthals devoted much of their brain space to their enhanced visual and physical abilities. Modern humans have more brain space devoted to higher cognition and social networking.

We may be the smartest species after all, but it’s not by much. Our vastly superior abilities in tool making and technology come down not just to our intelligence, but to our opposable thumbs (sorry dolphins) and our greater social abilities combined with the large social networks we formed after the invention of agriculture.

The collective human intelligence has sent people to the moon and made iPhones, but no single person knows how to make even a computer mouse. If I threw you in the woods alone and naked, how long before you are sending a text message? Every human is capable of rudimentary tool building, 7 billion people putting their brains together gives us the iPhone. The great difference between us and neanderthals was that they organized in small societies of dozens of people, while we benefit from the collective genius of billions.

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