We humans like to congratulate ourselves on the many ways in which we’re ‘superior’ to other animals, but it seems like every week a new piece of research chips away at this idea. The most recent example that caught my eye was a paper in the journal Science showing that a species of wasp can recognise the faces of its fellow insects.
As some commenting scientists pointed out in last week’s Nature magazine, ‘the finding that a small-brained insect shares the ability to recognise faces with humans and other primates may come as a surprise’, especially if you think that this sort of intelligence requires a large brain. But should we really be shocked by this?
Anyone who’s interested in insects knows that they have some of the most complex social set-ups outside American high school movies. Termites, ants and wasps are all examples of insects that live in groups with amazingly complicated hierarchies.
This research shows how wasps can recognise the faces of others – useful in a species where the females fight each other for dominance of their shared nest. Facial recognition saves them having to repeat the same battles over and over again. As the researchers who carried out the study express it, ‘specialized cognition is surprisingly labile and may be adaptively shaped by species-specific selective pressures such as face recognition’.
Or to put it more simply, wasps are intelligent when it’s useful for them to be intelligent. I don’t think ‘surprising’ is the best word to use for this finding. It’s certainly interesting, because it suggests that abilities that were thought to be complex can be found in relatively ‘simple’ species.
But would it be so surprising if intelligence turns out to be just like any ability that evolves over time? If an organism acquires a useful skill, it will be more successful in its fight for survival, and more likely to pass on this skill to future generations. And the assumption that certain types of intelligence require a large brain seems to me to be lacking in evidence.
The whole concept of intelligence isn’t an easy one to define. There’s that urban myth about how immigrants to America who had never had the benefit of electricity were marked down in early intelligence tests because they couldn’t recognise a diagram of a light bulb. Intelligence is relative – if an animal can’t solve a problem it will never encounter, does that make it less intelligent? Or just well adapted to its environment?
And vice versa, if a wasp will benefit from recognising its neighbours, why should we be surprised that it can? This is my favourite kind of research because it challenges some quite deep assumptions about humans and animals – ones that I think are increasingly hard to justify.
It’s easy for humans to see the benefits of human intelligence, but much harder for us to understand another species’ point of view. If intelligence is a way to solve important problems, then every species that isn’t extinct has clearly found its own brand of cleverness that has successfully kept it alive.
As the scientists commenting on this research in Nature conclude, the advantages of bigger brains ‘might relate to higher memory storage capacity (equivalent to bigger hard drives rather than better processors)’. Bigger isn’t always better, and some might think that a wasp doing so much with a small brain is working its assets far more intelligently than a large bald ape with a superiority complex.