Intelligence and Thinking

grizzly sow and cub

One study found bears to be among the best problem solvers when seeking a hidden reward. Does that mean they are among the best thinkers or smartest animals?

Given that a human brain weighs a third of that of an elephant and a tenth of the largest brain in the world, that of a sperm whale, why are we seemingly vastly more intelligent? And along that vein, what separates someone with an IQ of 160 (Einstein, though never tested, was estimated to have an IQ between 160 and 190) or even 220 (Marilyn Vos Savant, Christopher Hirata and Terrence Tao all have IQs higher than 220 and William James Sidis, admitted to Harvard University at age 11 after being refused admission at age 6, may have had an IQ of 300) from the rest of us—a normally intelligent person is said to have an IQ between 90 and 110—if not brain size?

For humans at least, the answer may be not in how much, but rather, how the parts are connected. Einstein could “see” things the rest of us could not perhaps because the pathways in his brain were more efficient. Neuroimaging data seems to bear this out—"individuals with highly efficient [neural] networks have a higher IQ." So, our brain capacities may be similar, it is simply that the communication between distant parts of the brain is much more effective in some people than others.

When it comes to animals though, things get muddled in a hurry. What is the ability to think and how is it measured in species that we cannot communicate with directly?

Twelve years ago I wrote about anthropomorphism—assigning human values, including cognitive thought, to an animal—after being chastised by an editor for suggesting that a cow elk felt fear and planned a defense as wolves closed in on her. Anthropomorphism is still a hot topic in science today and for some scientists, the mere mention of cognitive thought (“involving conscious intellectual activity such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering. Merriam Webster Dictionary) in animals can make them apoplectic.

Other scientists are convinced that animals think and sometimes think deeply. There is no scientific consensus that animals do or do not think cognitively, whether the measure be in abstractness, reasoning, empathy, memory or planning for future events. The difficulty lies in developing tests that can definitively prove or disprove the hypothesis. A next step will be to see if neurological testing can determine if animals use the same portions of the brain for certain complex activities as humans do.

The one thing that separates humans from other animals and allowed us to grow mentally, is communication in sentences. We can verbalize thoughts, enter discussions, and ponder complexities because we can verbalize them in detail with others or to ourselves. This is why other animals such as some primates, pandas, koalas and even a couple of frogs with whom we share the trait of opposable thumbs, a key element in development beyond subsistence, still haven’t left the jungles—they can not communicate more than the most basic needs.

There are many observations and scientific experiments that suggest animals think, empathize and plan. In 1959, Dr. Russell M. Church demonstrated that rats pulling a lever to obtain food stopped when they realized that pulling the lever also delivered an electric shock to other rats. A humpback whale has been observed flipping a seal up on its back to save it from killer whales. A zoo gorilla was found building stacks of rocks, placing them strategically and covering them in anticipation of throwing them at visitors. These are all indicators of cognitive thinking, but who can interview the subjects to find out?

Energetically, brains are one of the costliest organs in the body, requiring as much as 20 percent of our energy. Thus, a balance between becoming as intelligent as possible and minimizing cost must be struck. We can mitigate for the cost of running a complex brain with clothing, warm homes, food production and more because we have escaped mere subsistence. Animals may not be able to do so as easily without speech and thumbs.

Humans also seem to be the least aware animals on the planet. I can often drive to the store and back and not remember seeing a single thing along the way. I can get away with that because it isn’t crucial to my survival. Hypervigilance keeps other species alive and much of their brain capacity may be devoted to that. They have to think differently to survive, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho