This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 08 table of contents.

Adaptive Intelligence

Animals will generally be "smart" in ways that are adaptive for the species. If a certain form of information processing makes members of a species more likely to reproduce and pass on their genes, that type of intelligence will be positively selected in that species.

In what ways will animals be "smart," generally? Why are pigeons good candidates for a visual discrimination test? Why are rats so good with mazes?

For example, in explaining why pigeons perform letter discrimination tasks as well as humans, one must remember that pigeons are "visual animals" because birds must spot things from the air to survive. A pigeon is a good candidate to make sophisticated visual recognition judgments in the laboratory, because it must do so in nature. A rat would probably be a poor subject in visual recognition tests, because a rat depends more on taste, touch, smell, and spatial ability.

Rats have dexterous little paws. They are "smart" in using them to manipulate objects. Pigeons would do not well in tests that involve handling objects. Rats are great at running mazes. Why? This laboratory task resembles their activity in natural environments. Rats make their living by exploring territories and finding food. A pigeon might do poorly in a maze, but it could range over a greater territory than a rat without getting lost. Intelligence is clearly specialized and relates to the adaptive needs and abilities of a species.

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