The Emergence of Intelligence.
Renée Fuller, Ph.D.
Ellie, my, Great Dane, had become an expert at hunting them down. Her prey were the houseflies that gloried in the sun warming up at the windows of my old house. The flies had become adept at sensing when Ellie was about to leap at them, ending their lives as she devoured them with gusto. It had taken Ellie considerable practice before becoming proficient at capturing her prey. But even after having reached an accomplished flycatcher stage, a few tries were usually necessary before Ellie successfully anticipated the next escape move of her quarry.
That Ellie, being a hunting dog had become adept at anticipating the next move of her prey didn't surprise me. What was astonishing was the skill demonstrated by those lowly flies in their escape maneuvers. Their brains, if you could call them that, consist of a limited aggregation of neurons. So how could they possibly understand that Ellie was a foe, not a friend, and because of this realization try to anticipate the next move of their superior huntress? Surely, flies can't think! And they certainly can't have what psychologists call "theory of mind" – that is know what the "other" is thinking. But then how could the flies have the intelligence to frequently succeed in anticipating Ellie's next move?
Yet equally, if not more, puzzling is the astonishing performance of army ants. They also have only a limited endowment of neurons in their heads (brains?). Many years ago Dr. T.C Schneirla described the battles waged by these "humble" insects. Those battle maneuvers are so complex that they intrigued our own human West Point generals to such an extent that army-ant battle strategies were included as a part of the West Point curriculum. Surely, those lowly army ants can't have a "theory of mind" and think! Yet how can they act with such intelligence?
I had an equally mystifying experience many years ago while I was working on my Ph.D. thesis. My laboratory was the old pump house with a large beehive on the left side of its front door. On the first day of my occupancy several bees joined me as I entered my new lab. Not appreciating such unwelcome guests I brushed them back out of the door with a broom. Knowing full well that they couldn't possibly understand what I was saying I nevertheless yelled at them "From now on, stay on your side of the door."
They did. For the years I worked at the Village Hospital (with its six thousand beds) the bees never entered my laboratory again. More surprising, they avoided what had become my side of the path leading to the front door. Any visitor to my lab had to be carefully guided by me to avoid a bee attack. However, once I left the Village Hospital for another position the bees stopped behaving themselves. The new occupant of the pump house after being harassed by the bees had the hive with its occupants removed. He didn't know bee talk. But how could the bees possibly know what I had said or what was in my mind? How had we managed to communicate? We all know that bees can't think!
Compared to the insects, the intelligent behavior of Mischief, my Siamese cat seems less extraordinary. For years, like many a cat, Mischief had no understanding for human laughter. Above all, she did not appreciate laughter following one of her performances. In response to my laughter on such occasions she'd give me one of her maximum baleful looks. Her large expressive blue eyes were surprisingly effective in expressing emotion – especially negative ones. And for years every time I laughed at something she had done she'd give me that maximum baleful look and walk away as though in disgust.
The occasion when all this changed was when Mischief was about seven years old. Irritated at being given that baleful stare every time I laughed I tried to figure out, "How can you explain to a cat what laughter is? It is, it is..." Then it occurred to me. "Laughter is like play." At that point I remembered something most cat owners know. Kittens have a very specific way they indicate that they are playing, not attacking. Thereby they avoid the misinterpretation of being perceived as a foe by their kitten playmates. They are communicating that they are a make-believe foe, not a real one. The specific way they indicate this is with a sideways dance prior to a mock attack.
It is this sideways dance that I proceeded to produce as I laughed and said to Mischief "See, laughter is like play." Her baleful look grew even more baleful, if that was possible. But I persisted with my sideways dance laughing and singing "Laughter is like play."
It happened suddenly. It was as if her eyes had clicked. The baleful look was gone, and Mischief leaped high into the air, again and again and again. Then she came over purring up a storm while she rubbed her head against my legs. She had understood! From that time on until she died at age sixteen whenever I laughed at one of her pranks she would come over purring as she rubbed her head against my legs.
Note: instead of the on-off switch (friend or foe) that the response of the flies entails, the kittens, with their sideways dance signifying make-believe, demonstrated a major cognitive advance. After seeing Mischief's comprehension of the application of the sideways dance to a totally different instance, how can I not believe that cats are capable of thinking? Mischief had undeniably understood what I was thinking. Does that mean she too, like me, had something resembling a "theory of mind"?
And Ellie, my Great Dane and skillful fly chaser, certainly acts as if she has a "theory of mind" and can think. Like many a housedog, Ellie responds correctly to a large number of words. But she's capable of more. She can understand a series of words that form sentences that resemble a story.
The other day on our way home in the car from an outing I told restless Ellie "Now be quiet. Be a good girl. And when we get home, first you go out and whizz, then there will be nighthoppers (that's a dish of bedtime goodies) waiting for you." The dog quieted down immediately. Looking at me she salivated in anticipation of the nighthoppers to be. Ellie had understood. As soon as we reached home she charged out of the car at top speed to go whizzing. Then she charged back at top speed salivating all the while in anticipation of the nighthoppers. Note: Ellie had understood not just a word or two of what I was saying, but a series of sentences. In a way she had understood a miniature story.
Two year old Greg already understood miniature stories but in his cse that didn't necessarily mean he would act appropriately to their content. On a trip home in the car his mother said to her rambunctious son, "Be quiet now. And when we get home, after we've brought the groceries into the house there'll be ice cream." The Mom expected an intelligent response since she was sure that Greg had understood what she had said. Oh, Greg had understood, but that did not mean an intelligent response.
Screaming on top of his lungs "Now, now." Greg made it clear he had no intention of either being quiet or waiting for the ice cream. "Now, now..." He had understood what his mother had said, but he lacked the emotional intelligence to respond appropriately. In many ways he hadn't reached the reasoning ability of Ellie the dog.
However, when by chance the same scene was repeated a year later, when Greg was three, his response was very different from the year before. This time he quieted down immediately after his Mom told him that if he "settled down" there would be ice cream when they got back home and after they had brought in the groceries. His response now resembled the intelligent behavior of Ellie under similar circumstances.
Is there a basic element in the intelligent behavior of the flies, the army ants, the bees, Mischief the cat, Ellie the dog, and Greg the human that all these very different creatures have in common? On close examination there actually is an essential aspect in the behavior of these different animal species that in an important way unites them all. It is the previously described capacity to be aware whether the "other" is friend or foe. This awareness, that the "other" is not just a series of disconnected stimuli but an entity which can be potentially dangerous or friendly, is the rudiment of intelligent behavior. And it is on this awareness that subsequent intellectual development appears to have been built.
The awareness of the flies that Ellie, who was about to pounce on them, was a foe made it possible for their frequently successful escapes. The bees showed a similar awareness of me as the "other" when I was on the path walking to the pump house. By their actions they demonstrated that I was an entity to be avoided, which resulted in their flying on the left-hand side of the path leading to the pump house door. The work of Dr. T.C. Schneirla with the army ants also demonstrated the ability of these insects to distinguish friend from foe leading to elaborately different consequences. Implicit in the concept of friend or foe with its potential consequences is an implied verb. Foes can harm or kill: a verb concept. Whereas a friend potentially helps; also a verb concept. I have since labeled this noun-verb cognitive unit the story-engram. It is on this basic cognitive unit that further intellectual development is built, including our own human story telling.
The mammal, Mischief the Siamese cat understood several actual spoken nouns, which she recognized as denoting either friend or foe. Hearing the word "dog" with its implied verb she was ready to give chase. In turn the local dogs recognized her as a foe and avoided my house in fear of this fierce little attacker. By demonstrating noun recognition with its implied meaning Mischief established that here was the beginning of a verbal understanding of the noun-verb complex. And with the beginnings of such verbal understandings Mischief showed she had an elementary form of what we tend to label as verbal abstraction. A capacity for abstraction would explain how and why it was possible for Mischief to draw the correct and surprisingly conceptual conclusion from my demonstration that my laughter was indeed a form of play.
Ellie, the dog, demonstrated an even more advanced verbal understanding. As the scene in the car showed, she was capable of comprehending a sequence of verbal concepts. In that car ride back home she understood and acted appropriately to; (1) being told to be quiet until we got home; (2) that as soon as we got home she must go out and whizz: (3) followed by the anticipated reward of "nighthoppers".
An essential fundamental of meaning is already apparent in insects with their perception as to whether the other entity is friend or foe. Gradually as animals become more complex, have more than a simple aggregation of neurons, there develops an elaboration of the meaning of friend or foe. In mammals this elaboration of meaning can take on a "let's make-believe" meaning configuration. The kittens in their playful sideways dance are indicating "let's make believe I'm attacking you."
We can only guess how wide ranging and how much make-believe play behavior achieves in teaching kittens and other young mammals about their world. Considering the amount of energy that is expended on such make-believe play it must be teaching important as well as essential aspects of survival.
We, the human mammal, have added a crucial and new component to the make-believe game. It is an elaborated verbal component. Shortly after having acquired the command of simple sentences, children delight in being told simple stories. And it doesn't take long after that for them to become entranced by the verbal make-believe ritual of "Once upon a time." That ritual is the signal that what you're about to hear is a make-believe tale.
Greg, by the time he was four had become thoroughly familiar with the make-believe game of stories. So when he saw the illustration of Vad of Mars in the Ball-Stick-Bird reading series he immediately understood that that first book could tell him an exciting adventure story. It required no extra encouragement to induce him to want to learn to read in order to find out more about Vad who, from that moment on, became his cult hero. Greg's eagerness to play the reading game was reminiscent of the enthusiasm of kittens in their play behavior. We see here the importance of the linkage between make-believe play, with its implied meaning, leading to the creations of stories and the emergence of human intellectual development. Story creations involve us in an enhanced growth of verbal intelligence with its extensive intricacies and nuances.
The ease and speed with which Greg learned to read when the make believe verbal story format was used demonstrates how important play is as an educational tool. Greg's pleasure in learning to read reminds us that play is the natural way to learn and therefore to teach. Instruction that comes in story form works because those story-engrams talk to the human brain. The importance of verbal make-believe is that with it we can create narratives with which to teach the cornucopia of human intellectual achievements. Stories can tell us the history of our country, or the story of mankind. Even science can be playfully exciting and easier to understand when presented in the story format (for example: a narrative that navigates the human body, or how to combine atoms to build molecules that do interesting things, etc.)
It didn't take Greg's parents long to realize how effective it was to present their son's lessons in a story format. Besides, Greg, like most children, hated the drill presentation of disconnected factual information. As a young adolescent he made it clear that he refused to be drilled in those "disconnected facts." He told a would-be educator "Computers need to be fed factual info, like dictionaries and encyclopedias. That's what they need to function. Not me. I need things to make sense 'cause I'm a human!"
If the flies, the ants, the bees, Mischief the cat, Ellie the dog could talk they would probably agree with Greg. They too function best when things make sense – even though they're not human.
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Williamstown, MA 01267
© 2002 Renée Fuller
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