Do animals think? An Introduction to animal intelligence

What is intelligence and how do animals exhibit different kinds of intelligence?

Human exceptionalism
Howard Gardner
Logical intelligence
*Animals Make Us Human*

Are humans exceptional?

When it comes to questions of intelligence, it is tempting to think that human brains are exceptional. Surely, no animal is as clever as we are. Surely, no animal is capable of thought.

This belief is known as human exceptionalism, and it first dates back to ancient philosophers like Aristotle. It can also be linked to the Judeo-Christian creation story, in which God gave man “dominion” over animals – a clear hierarchy, with humans at the top, and all other species underneath.

But is this hierarchy valid? In recent years, researchers have found that certain animals are a lot more intelligent than people once believed.

Defining intelligence

When we define ‘intelligence’, we often talk about logic and reason. The Oxford Dictionary describes it as “the ability to think in a logical way,” while Cambridge calls it “the ability to learn, understand, and make judgments or have opinions that are based on reason.”

But are logic and reason the only way to define intelligence? In the 1980s, Howard Gardner, an American psychologist, put forward the theory of multiple intelligences, in which logical-mathematical was only one of many types.

Gardner used this theory to explain why a person can struggle with mathematics, but excel in other areas, like learning languages. That person is not unintelligent. They are simply better at one type of intelligence (linguistic) than another (logical-mathematical).

Evolutionary pressures

In the context of humans, Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has been criticized. It is based primarily on anecdotal evidence, rather than hard empirical support.

But when it comes to animals, the idea of multiple intelligence types is becoming more and more established. In 2020, a group of psychologists published a paper on the subject, under the title *There Is Not ‘One Cognition’*.

This paper explores how different species evolve different brains as a result of evolutionary pressures. Just as a giraffe evolved to have a long neck, every animal evolved a unique intelligence to suit its evolutionary niche.


Intelligence tree

When a species evolves its own form of intelligence, that intelligence has different strengths and weaknesses. In some areas, it might fall short of humans, but in others, it can surpass us.

In terms of physical adaptations, it is widely accepted that different species have different strengths. Nobody thinks a human is faster than a hare, or stronger than an ox. In terms of cognitive adaptations, the same approach should be taken.

Instead of a linear hierarchy, with humans at the top, intelligence is a tree with different branches. One of these branches is logical intelligence, where human brains excel. But in other types of intelligence, like spatial or emotional, some animals perform better than we do.

Logical intelligence

Logical intelligence is the ability to use logic, analysis, and sometimes mathematics, to solve some kind of problem. This type of intelligence comes naturally to humans, and is the area in which our brains are best adapted.

From an evolutionary perspective, logical intelligence helps a species to overcome obstacles. They might develop a tool that lets them access a food source, or invent a weapon which keeps them safe from predators.

For a long time, tool-use was thought to be an exclusively human trait, but in the last few decades, it has been observed in a number of species. None of them can match the logical intelligence of humans, but these animals are capable of problem-solving, and some of them even use math.


Emotional intelligence

A useful definition of emotional intelligence was proposed in the 1990s: “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”

This form of intelligence evolves in species that live in tight-knit social groups, where individuals who know how to read each other are more likely to survive and thrive. Humans are a good example of this, but they are far from alone.

Magpies seem to hold funerals. Rats can make each other laugh. And there is mounting evidence that the brains of whales are capable of emotions more rich and complex than anything a human could produce.

Spatial intelligence

Spatial intelligence is the ability to think in three dimensions, and to visualize objects from different angles. This type of intelligence is essential for navigation, as well as recognizing shapes and patterns.

This form of intelligence evolves in species that travel long distances, or negotiate difficult terrain. In terms of spatial intelligence, human brains are unable to compete with thousands of species around the world.

Animals with high levels of spatial intelligence include birds and insects, which can fly at high speeds and migrate around the globe. Some animal brains can process infrared, and read magnetic fields. This allows them to navigate physical space in a way that humans cannot match.


Linguistic intelligence

Linguistic intelligence is the ability to use and understand language. This type of intelligence involves speech comprehension and speech generation, which are slightly different skills.

Like emotional intelligence, linguistic intelligence evolves in social species which benefit from sharing information. They might warn one another that a predator is coming, or describe the location of a source of food.

Humans excel at linguistic intelligence, but we are not the only species capable of language. Primates communicate using physical gestures, birds have a range of different songs, and whales speak using complex clicks called coda. Even insects are capable of language: some bees communicate by performing an expressive dance.


Memory is a type of intelligence which a number of species excel at. Memory can be divided into two categories: working memory and long-term memory.

Working memory is the temporary storage of information. It lets us hold a few thoughts in our head for a moment, like the numbers in a sum, while we mentally find an answer. This ability is relatively rare in animals, but it has been observed in some primates and birds.


Long-term memory is when information is stored in the brain for extended periods of time. This is where animals come into their own, like the birds which remember the location of hundreds of food caches.


The hardest aspect of intelligence to define, and measure, is the idea of consciousness. In 2004, a group of neuroscientists wrote: “Consciousness has not yet become a scientific term that can be defined.”

In general terms, consciousness is usually seen as a state of self-awareness. Not just to think, but to know that we think. Not just to exist, but to know we exist. In evolutionary terms, it helps us to understand our place in society, and to know our own strengths and weaknesses.

In animals, self-awareness is generally measured using an experiment known as the mirror test. If an animal recognizes its own reflection, it is considered self-aware. A handful of species have passed the mirror test, which suggests that consciousness is not unique to human brains.

Does animal intelligence matter?

An increased awareness of animal intelligence has major implications. If a species is capable of rich emotions and self-awareness, is it ethical to farm that animal species, or to keep it in a zoo?


In 2009, animal behaviorist Temple Grandin released a book called *Animals Make Us Human*. This book encouraged people to consider the emotional needs of animals, and make sure they never get bored, miserable or stressed.

A better understanding of animal intelligence also changes our perception of ourselves. For thousands of years, we thought we were alone in our intelligence. If other species are capable of thought, does that change what it means to be human?

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You might also like

Scientific consensus: How theories of animal intelligence have changed over time;

An overview of leading proponents of animal intelligence and their views

Emotional intelligence: How animals laugh and grieve;

How animals experience emotions and their real-world implications

Linguistic intelligence: How animals generate language;

Vocalisation techniques across different animal groups and the ways they communicate with one another

Spatial intelligence: How animals navigate physical space;

How animals recognise objects, discern distance, and make sense of their environment through unique senses

Memory: How animals remember past events;

The role of recall and working memory in the lives of animals

Logical intelligence: How animals overcome problems;

Examples of logical intelligence and abilities across different groups of animals

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