Why is human intelligence so far ahead of the first runner up?

Evolution (if you’re a creationist then there’s no point in joining this discussion, you already have the answer) has produced humans with great intelligence and consciousness. Why isn’t there some species that is pretty intelligent, just not quite as much as us?

Why don’t we see primates making crude hammers or building shelter? Beavers build shelter but the argument is that is instinctual rather than intelligent. Dolphins are said to be pretty intelligent but it’s hard to compare to humans because they haven’t developed any technology. Some animals have sophisticated means of communication (elephants through ground-stomping, whales, bees) but none of this is said to be language.

So how did humans get so far out in front, when the rest of the animal kingdom has a smoother spectrum?

Check out the book Rattling the Cage, by Stephen Wise, a professor at (I think) Harvard Law School. It’s a survey of primate research, focusing on chimpanzees and bonobos, and argues that they’re about as intellectually developed as a human child. Interesting stuff.

I’ve also heard that neanderthals were almost as intelligent as homo sapiens, but that we both competed for the same ecological niche, and that neanderthals were outcompeted. I’ve no idea whether this idea holds merit.


Survival is all that is important in the long run; we have yet to prove that intelligence, tool use and civilisation are actually long-term survival traits; bacteria manage pretty well without any of it.

The development of an advanced language, which has become symbolic at some point in our evolutionary history, has caused a positive feedback effect and humanity has acquired an enlarged cortex and excessive intelligence.
We don’t really need it, it only makes us unhappy and facilitates mass psychosis, but there it is.

I’ll agree, but why are we the only ones that have it?

You’re going on the assumption that intelligence is an attribute to which all species aspire, and only the select few have attained it.

This is not necessarily the case. Intelligence is just one of the strange attributes that helped us to survive. Other species may have no real use for it. One may as well ask why we never developed quills, the obvious best defense, or prehensile tongues, the superior method of catching ants.

Didn’t the neanderthals have language? For that matter, can’t chimpanzees and bonobos learn sign language?

This speciesist BS. I am a talking/typing dog and I find the idea that humans are somehow innately more intelligent than me very offensive.

Mangetout, I think a regular reading of News of the Weird should be enough to convince anyone that intelligence is a survival trait ;).

Seriously, I don’t think there’s any evidence that any other organism has evolved the same cognitive abilities as adult humans have evolved. Certainly intelligence is a short-term survival trait: witness the lightning-fast expansion of humans over the earth’s surface. Witness our ability to outcompete most other species for resources.

Sure, it’s possible we’ll flare up and die out. But if we do, we’ll apparently be the first species to do so because of intelligence. And it’s a fair question as to why no other species has evolved a similar intelligence.

You’d think, for example, that (all things being equal) a pack of human-intelligent wolves would be able to catch more caribou than a pack of wolf-intelligent wolves, and would therefore be able to reproduce in greater numbers. Why haven’t wolves been selected for advanced symbolic cognitive abilities? Has the mutation just not occurred? Is it mere chance that these mutations have occurred amongst primates?


Bullshit. I’ve not yet met the dog who would waste his time on an Internet message board when there were still butts to be sniffed in the world. :wink:


The sign language abilities of bonobos and chimps are greatly exagerrated in the public mind- several native sign language users found attested that it was mostly wishful thinking on the experimenters part.
Neandethals on the other hand were fully human.

A big brain requires a lot of energy. For most species the added costs would outweigh any benefits.

Dolphins and whales use a wide range of sounds to communicate with each other while elephants utilize subsonic sound to communicate with each other over miles of open spaces.

I would consider this language, albeit a foriegn one that we cannot understand. These higher animals also have intricate social orders and strong family bonds, will grieve over their lost loved ones, and spend considerable time teaching their offspring the skills they require to survive.

We developed the ability to use tools because we are physically inferior to most of the other animals on the planet; a chimpanzee my size can run faster, jump higher, climb better, and if inclined… pull my arms out of their sockets. A gorilla can dead lift a ton.

We can also lay claim to being the most destructive and murderous species on the planet which makes me wonder how smart we really are.

The other higher animals live in relative harmony with their environment although some of them are not above engaging in wanton acts of violence.

Perhaps the dolphins and whales know things we don’t… they’ve been around much longer than we have and perhaps they have simply chosen to live a simple peaceful life.

Do you have a cite on this? I’m wondering if you’re thinking of Chimpsky.

Wise talks about Chimpsky in his book. Apparently, in order to avoid any researcher bias, they used literally hundreds of different researchers to teach Chimpsky, and cycled them in and out of the experiment; researchers were forbidden from engaging with Chimpsky on a sentimental level.

Wise points out that this is not how a human toddler learns language, either: human toddlers learn language in an “enriched” environment, in which they’re constantly surrounded by people talking to one another and to them, and in which adults have a vested, emotional interest in the toddler’s language skills. Wise argues that it was Chimpsky’s poor environment, rather than his cognitive abilities, that led to the experiment’s results.

OTOH, I’ve read transcripts of Koko the Gorilla and her interaction with her handler, and I gotta say, Koko sure wasn’t signing any philosophical treatises. Koko mostly seemed grouchy and vague and confused by the whole thing.

My mind isn’t made up on this issue.


It’s Writing (and reading)

Why are humans considered so much more intelligent?
Because they can build a bridge, a flat?
Can you, personnally?
Neither can a chimp.
But you can read the book “How to Build a Bridge”
If that book, and all the others, didn’t exist the difference between you and the chimp wouldn’t be as big as it seems now.

Maybe, but there were some pretty impressive civilizations that lacked writing. Look at pre-16th-century Cherokee, for example, or look at ancient Celts (who used writing only for ceremonial purposes, but who had a rich oral tradition).

Writing definitely helps, but I don’t think it accounts for everything.


I think that this is where opposable thumbs and tool use come into play. Wolves with opposable dewclaws would trip over their own paws. Wolves with intelligence would be outcompeted by their more energy-efficient stupid cousins. Wolves that could figure out how to create caribou traps and construct them would spread. And, if the ability to construct new traps gave more food at less risk then hunting as a pack, then you would probably see smarter, weaker wolves, as their fangs became less of a factor in their next meal and their smarts became more of one.
Of course, since caribou would eventually learn not to step in wolf-traps, the wolves that could not build a better prey-trap would die out, and those that could create a better trap by learning would live on.
Note: Not an evolutionary biologist or psychologist. Just what I assume based on what I know.

The best results have been obtained with a bonobo called Kanzi
who displayed a signing age of 2 and a half
one cite
however adult chimps and gorillas are quite capable of communicating with each other and living independently in the rainforest.

The gap is so big because the species measuring the gap (humans) are the ones that decide how the gap is measured.

Thus the things we’re good at are given a higher value than the things that we’re bad at. Thus we decide what is intelligence on the basis of what we’re intelligent at.

If gazelles were doing the measuring you’d find that the intelligence to get up on your legs and be able to run from birth would count for a whole lot more and the gap wouldn’t be nearly so big.

Hmm, yes but they are called impressive exactly because we are amazed that they achieved so much without the aid of writing.
They aren’t impressive in comparison to what their contemporaries achieved, like the Maya and the Greeks.
Plus, knowledge from oral tradition is more fragile.
If the people with trhe knowledge are eliminated without passing it on, it is lost.
The great thing about writing is that you can build on knowledge that might otherwise have been forgotten.