Can I really be serious about the title? Most dogs can do
little more than sit and stay, and can barely walk on a lead.
They are baffled when a squirrel disappears up a tree by
circling the trunk, and most will happily drink out of the toilet
bowl. This is not the profile of a typical genius. Forget Shakespearean
sonnets, spaceflight, or the Internet. If I used the clichéd definition
of genius, this would be a very short POST.
I am serious, and hundreds of studies and the latest research
back me up. This is because in cognitive science, we think about
intelligence in animals a little differently. The first thing we look at,
when judging the intelligence of animals, is how successfully they
have managed to survive and reproduce in as many places as possible.
In some species, such as cockroaches, success does not have
much to do with intelligence at all. They are just very hardy and
But with other animals, surviving takes a little more intellect,
and a very specific kind of intellect. For instance, it does not do any
good composing sonnets if you are a dodo. You are obviously missing
the intelligence you need to survive (in the dodo’s case, this was
learning to avoid new predators such as hungry sailors).
With this as our starting point, the dog is arguably the most
successful mammal on the planet, besides us. Dogs have spread to all
corners of the world, including inside our homes, and in some cases
onto our beds. While the majority of mammals on the planet have
seen a steep decline in their populations as a result of human activity,
there have never been more dogs on the planet than today. In the
industrialized world, people are having fewer children than ever but
are simultaneously providing an increasingly lavish lifestyle for a
growing population of pet dogs. Meanwhile, dogs have more jobs
than ever. Service dogs assist the mentally or physically disabled,
military dogs find bombs, police dogs do guard duty, customs dogs
detect illegally imported goods, conservation dogs find scat to help
estimate population sizes and movements of endangered animals,
bedbug dogs detect when hotels have a problem, cancer dogs detect
melanomas or even intestinal cancer, therapy dogs visit retirement
homes and hospitals to lift spirits and speed recoveries.
I am fascinated with the kind of intelligence that has allowed
dogs to be so successful. Whatever it is – this must be their genius.
Wh at i s ge n i u s?
Most of us have at some time been given a test where scores determine
how we are taught or which university we attend. Alfred Binet
designed the first standardized intelligence tests in the early twentieth
century. His goal was to identify students in France who should
receive extra scholastic attention and resources. His original test
evolved into the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, which is known
as the IQ test.
IQ tests provide a very narrow definition of genius. As you probably
remember, IQ tests focus on basic skills such as reading, writing,
and analytical ability. The tests are favoured because on average,
they predict scholastic success. But they do not measure the full
capabilities of each person. They do not explain Ralph Lauren, Bill
Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, who all dropped out of university and
Consider Steve Jobs. One biographer said, ‘Was he smart? No,
not exceptionally. Instead he was a genius’. Jobs dropped out of elite
Reed College in Oregon and went to find himself in India; at one
point was forced out of Apple, the company he co-founded, when
sales were slow in 1985. Few would have predicted the level of his
success by his death. ‘Think different’ became the slogan of a multinational
monolith that fused art and technology under his guidance.
Jobs may have been average or unexceptional in many domains, but
his vision and ability to think differently made him a genius.
Temple Grandin, a professor of animal studies at Colorado State
University, is autistic, yet she is also the author of several books,
including Animals Make Us Human. Grandin has also done more
for animal welfare than almost anyone. Although she struggles to
read people’s emotions and social cues, her extraordinary understanding
of animals has allowed her to reduce the stress of millions
of farm animals.
A cognitive approach is about celebrating different kinds of intelligence.
Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of
cognition while being average or below average in another.