Humans Vs. Pilot Whales: Who's More Intelligent?

Humans Vs. Pilot Whales: Who's More Intelligent?

Photo Courtesy of The Simpsons

Photo Courtesy of The Simpsons

Who's the smartest in the Animal Kingdom?

I found myself asking this question after seeing an article argue over which species was more intelligent, cats or dogs. There are conflicting reports on that issue and the article I just linked has a misnomer title, but all of that aside, my first query was how do researchers look for intelligence in the first place? You can, of course, monitor the life of an animal and give it different tasks to test its problem solving abilities or you can dig deeper and look at the numbers.

It seems to the Vanderbilt University and others that intelligence can be measured in relation to the amount of cortical neurons a brain has. I read this and thought, like in life, dry numbers don't always equal a solid conclusion when it comes to emotions, habits, general thought processes, and creativity. It seems that you must consider evolutionary history and environment as well. 

Photo courtesy of Jonathon Bird's Blue World and Wes's Sick Squat Skills

Photo courtesy of Jonathon Bird's Blue World and Wes's Sick Squat Skills

Going off neurons in the cerebral cortex alone, which is where most information processing occurs, science tells us that the Pilot Whale is almost twice as smart as we are.

Species/Neurons - Screenshot from Wikipedia

Species/Neurons - Screenshot from Wikipedia

So why do we rule the world and they don't? Environmental advantages.

1. We Live on Land

Living on land has given us a lot of advantages. We're privy to more materials. We can spark fires here. We can skateboard. (That applies to everyone right?)

There were, of course, land issues at first:

  • Respiration

  • Gravity

  • Desiccation


Photo courtesy of Know Your Meme

Photo courtesy of Know Your Meme

2. We Have Hands

Mainly I'm referring to our thumb and index finger, but the rest of the hand is great too (just not AS great. Fight me, other fingers.) We can grab anything we want! Just don't go the Kevin Spacey route.


3. We've Written Down Our Knowledge

Even though the Pilot Whale may be able to process more information than we can, it is not evident that they have passed their knowledge in an overarching way to their descendants; no more so than other animals have. Once we discovered/invented writing, we changed the game. 

It doesn't appear as if our brains have changed in a drastic way from 10,000 years ago in relation to how big our brains are or how many neurons we as humans have. This seems to point in the direction of environmental pressures, adaptability, and communication over long periods of time. 



Humans are smarter, but only because we have evolutionary advantages that extend past an adherence to a certain amount of neurons in a specific place within our brain, though neuron counts are a large component.

According to Marc Hauser, director of the cognitive evolution lab at Harvard University, there are four main cognitive factors that distinguish us from all other life on Earth, (that we know of). I've given you my "why/what", now here's Hauser's "what":

1. Generative computation

Humans can generate a practically limitless variety of words and concepts. We do so through two modes of operation recursive and combinatorial. The recursive operation allows us to apply a learned rule to create new expressions. In combinatorial operations, we mix different learned elements to create a new concept.

2. Promiscuous combination of ideas

Promiscuous combination of ideas allows the mingling of different domains of knowledge such as art, sex, space, causality and friendship thereby generating new laws, social relationships and technologies.”

3. Mental symbols

Mental symbols are our way of encoding sensory experiences. They form the basis of our complex systems of language and communication. We may choose to keep our mental symbols to ourselves, or represent them to others using words or pictures.

4. Abstract thought

Abstract thought is the contemplation of things beyond what we can sense.

This is not to say that our mental faculties sprang fully formed out of nowhere. Researchers have found some of the building blocks of human cognition in other species. But these building blocks make up only the cement foot print of the skyscraper that is the human mind. The evolutionary origins of our cognitive abilities thus remain rather hazy. Clarity is emerging from novel insights and experimental technologies, however.
— Marc Hauser
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