Pony Up and Wade Into the Debate - Mar. 13, 2012
There is an ongoing debate in our household and it has nothing to do with the humans that reside there.
It is between the two dogs and the cat.
The guinea pigs are not allowed in the conversation because they are always hiding and the horse is settled in about 10 miles from home and does not have a say, either.
Which animal is smarter?
Cat or dog?
In November, 2010, scientists at Oxford University laid rest a most divisive issues. They claimed unequivocally that dogs are smarter than cats. Many have been fuming over it ever since, and Eric Barchas finally broke down and decided to take a public look at the research.
A newspaper at the time laid out the scientific logic pretty clearly. Dogs are more social, and social interactions require lots of brainpower. The demands of social behaviour require relatively larger brains. Animals with relatively larger brains must be smarter than those with relatively smaller brains. Therefore, in the words of the scientists, dogs are smarter.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the brains of monkeys expanded the most over evolutionary history, followed by horses, dolphins, camels, and dogs.
Groups of mammals with relatively bigger brains tend to live in stable groups, they found.
The researchers believe that living in a group is more demanding mentally than having a lonely existence.
Before Mr. Barchas dug into this (and he has a lot to say in his By Nature by Blue Seal blog), he wanted to touch on another aspect of the dogs are smarter argument that he saw at the time that covered the famous trainability argument. Dogs are more attuned to human desires than cats are. They instinctively follow our hands when we point at something. They want to please us, and therefore they are more easily trained. They behave as if they are better at predicting our desires. Therefore many people think they are smarter.
Each species fulfills its role perfectly, and no cat or dog lover would want either one to change.
Mr. Barchas is a dog owner and a hardcore dog lover. The author said he would go so far as to say that dogs embody just about everything good in the world. He believes that dogs are perfectly adapted to be human companions. Life without dogs would be empty. But anyone who thinks dogs truly are intelligent has never witnessed his pal Buster sniffing his own anus in a confused fashion after an episode of, um, flatuelence.
He believes that this argument comes down to your definition of intelligence. And the people who claim, decisively, that dogs are smarter than cats are defining smart in the wrong way. For instance, relative brain size does not equal smart. Birds of prey have relatively large brains, and most of that extra size is devoted to cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that truly counts. However, if you investigate further you will find that the extra brain size is devoted specifically to visual processing. Birds of prey see very, very well. But they are not especially smart.
Dogs, and for that matter, humans, have large brains primarily to support the rigors of social interactions. There is no doubt that social interactions, like vision, require large quantities of brain power. But does being social make you inherently intelligent? Consider this: Keeping up with gossip is one of the most social activities humans perform. In fact, many evolutionary theorists believe that the human brain evolved primarily as a gossip-managing tool.
People who follow every activity of the Kardashians, know about every baby bump in Hollywood, and keep up with who has slept with whom on Jersey Shore use large amounts of brainpower in a social fashion. But Mr. Barchas feels very comfortable saying that these activities, although highly social, and quite demanding of gray matter, do not fit any sort of generally accepted definition of intelligent.
Finally, let us not confound pleasing humans with intelligence. If you held up a baby carrot and tell a dog to sit, he will do it. If you hold up that same carrot and tell a cat and a Nobel laureate in physics to sit, they probably will not. Does this make the dog the smartest creature in the room?
He is not saying that cats are smarter than dogs. Frankly, he does not know which species is smarter, but the author does know that neither one of them will ever understand quantum physics, and he honestly does not think it matters. Each species fulfills its role perfectly, and no cat or dog lover would want either species to change.
But if you are going to claim decisively that one species is smarter than the other, you had better use a definition of intelligence that is universally accepted. In his opinion, the debate over the intelligence of cats and dogs is far from resolved.
Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves, but our house cat Noah believes he is right. And he will let both Calvin and Gizmo know.