Chimps. Humans. Cats. Which are the smartest?

Friday, December 14, 2007

When the story about chimpanzees beating humans in a memory test flashed on the TV the other night, Miss Kitty was curled up in my lap doing what cats do best: dozing.

But something about this story intrigued Miss Kitty. I could tell because she opened her eyes.

Maybe you saw the story about the smart chimps?

What they did was astounding. They were taught the 1-to-9 number sequence. Those numbers would randomly flash on a TV screen. The chimps would touch each number in order. If the order was correct, a peanut would pop out of a dispenser.

The tests got harder -- so hard, in fact, that it was obvious the chimps could have bested me. Easily.

In these harder tests, the numbers would flash on the screen for an instant, each time in a different pattern, and then the numbers would change to white squares. The chimps could still punch the numbers in the right sequence most of the time.

More peanuts.

To make the tests even more difficult, the amount of time the numbers appeared on the screen before they turned to white boxes became shorter and shorter. At two-tenths of a second, the chimps could see all the numbers, memorize them and accurately touch them in the right order. Impressive.

Me? I couldn't make out any of the numbers before they turned to white squares. I am a slow number finder.

So, yes, I was intrigued by the ability of the chimps to get more and more peanuts.

I happen to like peanuts. Chimps apparently love peanuts. In this test, unless they learned their numbers and remembered where they were on a TV screen, they wouldn't get any peanuts.

Perhaps my number-recognition skills and memory abilities would sharpen if the only way I could get something I really like was to outwit a chimp. Fudge, maybe. Or a corn dog.

I don't know about you, but I don't get fudge or corn dogs often. There's a reason. As humans, we understand that if we ate all the fudge and corn dogs we wanted, we would wipe out the human race. Chimps don't care about that, do they? Give me more peanuts. That's all a chimp thinks about.

And consider this: The reason all the chimps haven't died off is because they weren't the least bit interested in peanuts until some humans concocted this memory test that no chimp in his right mind would take unless those same humans devised a machine that dispenses peanuts if you get the numbers right.

There you have it. This isn't chimp intelligence at all. It's human-assisted chimp intelligence.

Now, if human-assisted methods could be harnessed to teach other humans ... .

Imagine if 5-year-old humans could be induced to learn what those 5-year-old chimps have learned about numbers on a TV screen. We could turn out high school graduates who not only know how to read and balance a checkbook, but also explain how the Bowl Championship Series formula works.

I noticed Miss Kitty was engrossed in the TV report on the chimp test. I wondered what her reaction might be.

Have you ever seen a cat roll its eyes?

I swear that's exactly what Miss Kitty did.

I asked, Don't you think those chimps are pretty smart?

Miss Kitty licked her left paw and said, "Humans are still smarter than chimps."

How do you know?

"Because if a human wanted peanuts he would simply put some coins in a vending machine and punch a couple of numbers -- numbers plainly visible in the vending machine. A package of peanuts would fall down a chute, ready to be eaten. No memory tricks. No skill whatsoever. End of story."

And cats? How would you get anything out of a vending machine?

"That's easy. I'd get you to do it for me. Just like everything else."

That would be cat-assisted human intelligence. Cats are way smarter than humans. And chimps.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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