Humans have achieved amazing things throughout the centuries, which would have been impossible without our most valued trait — intelligence. However, unlike strength, height and other characteristics, defining intelligence is complicated and often blurry. Furthermore, we humans do not have the sole right to intelligence, as is evident when studying other living creatures.
Intelligence is the ability to solve problems, avoid predators and stay alive, outsmart sexual competitors, and find food and shelter. Learning by gathering knowledge, being creative, critical thinking, and strategic planning are abilities that determine intelligence level. Living beings need hardwired abilities along with instinct, consciousness and awareness for effective problem-solving. An essential aspect of intelligence is flexibility in the skill set.
Information, memory and learning make up the essential tools in our intelligence toolboxes. Without these tools, living beings will be at the mercy of their surroundings.
Gathering information, locking it away in the memory bank, and using it to learn, make up the basics. We use our five senses to gather information about our surroundings. Living beings base many of their reactions on sound, vision, taste, touch and smell. However, monitoring things like their own fatigue, health and hunger are crucial.
If we couldn’t retain gathered information and recall it when necessary, the process would be pointless. The power of information is best if we can store it, ready to recall when presented with similar circumstances. That makes memory the second essential tool in the toolbox. It allows us to remember associations, places and events along with behaviors such as foraging and hunting methods.
Some tasks need repetitions before mastering them. Think of birds having to learn how to fly. Effective use of this third essential tool enable living beings to learn strings of repeated behaviors. Once mastered, flexibility will allow changing and adapting practices to reach specific goals.
Evidence of intelligence
Studies show that even seemingly unintelligent creatures use these three tools in intelligent ways. For example, an acellular slime mold — a huge single-cell slimy blob — could navigate a maze to get food. After entering the labyrinth, the slime mold found its way to the food placed on the opposite end. It deposited a slime trail as it moved along. By avoiding the routes with slime deposits, it managed to get to the food without being blocked by dead-ends. Although making a slime trail is hardwired, the mold used some intelligence level in its navigation of the maze.
Intelligence of bumblebees
Scientists studied bumblebees and learned that they could adapt their behavior for their own benefit. They offered the bees a sugar treat if they managed to move a brightly colored ball to a goal post. Although moving colored balls around are not typical behavior for bees, they showed skill. When the scientists used several balls of different colors, the bees used their intelligence to pick the ball closest to the goal post regardless of its color.
Flexible intelligence of raccoons
Scientists used a glass cylinder containing a marshmallow floating on water, to test the intelligence of raccoons. The raccoons quickly showed their problem-solving skills. They dropped pebbles into the cylinder to raise the water level and the marshmallow. Only one of them figured out that the easiest way to get the marshmallow was to knock the jar over.
In a second experiment, scientists challenged raccoons to open a range of boxes secured with various types of locks. With fewer than 10 attempts, they managed to open bolts, latches, push bars and plugs. They also had no problems when challenged with complicated arrangements of locks that needed opening in a specific order.
When presented with the same challenge one year later, the raccoons combined their skills and their memories to open the locks at the same speed as before. Similarly, primates use sticks to get termites out of tree trunks. An example of combining memories, skills and planning is the way squirrels gather nuts for storage. They examine each nut by using their senses. They keep only the best quality nuts for storage and separate the damaged or lower quality nuts to eat there and then.
The more complex the problem, the more tools you need in your intelligence toolbox. Humans need to deal with complicated problems that include pandemics, antibiotic resistance, climate change and more. Instead of focusing on short-term solutions, we have to plan for challenges in the distant future. Fortunately, we have the necessary tools in our toolboxes; we just need to use it in the most intelligent ways possible.