General Question

nebule's avatar

Does anyone know where i can get a good classification of what a higher animal is?

Asked by nebule (16457points) July 7th, 2009

I suspect the list will include humans, whales, dolphins… but not sure what else and I could do with a scientific explanation of a higher animal for an essay I’m wirting

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10 Answers

Harp's avatar

I doubt such a classification exists on a scientific level. The only criterion on which we could base this kind of assessment would be intelligence, and we’re often only guessing when we say how intelligent an animal is, based on brain size relative to body size. And then, who’s to say where to draw the line between “high” and “low”? That division would have to be completely arbitrary.

Such a thing might be possible if there were an identifiable trait that an animal either had or didn’t have to put him in the “higher” category, but where intelligence is concerned, those benchmarks are hard to discern. We know apes can use tools, for instance, but do whales? Even the ability to grasp language is very difficult to define and identify, and encompasses a wide gradient of cognitive abilities.

“Higher” may serve as a rough indication of an animal’s place on the hierarchy of intelligence, but I don’t see how it could be scientifically defined.

whitenoise's avatar

Here is an interesting article on the relationships of species. it explains clearly why a distinction of higher versus lower animals is a misconception on page 126.

From that article by T. Ryan Gregory (Understanding Evolutionary Trees):
‘Notions of a “Great Chain of Being” or scala naturae (scales of nature), in which living species (and, in some cases, nonliving matter and/or the divine) are ranked from
lowest to highest and extend back at least as far as Aristotle. Although Darwin (1837) himself noted early on that “It is absurd to talk of one animal being higher than another,” in many respects, his contribution merely shifted the explanation for the perceived rankings, replacing the scales of nature with an “evolutionary scale” or “evolutionary ladder” (Ruse 1996). Talk of “higher” and “lower” organisms, made in reference to contemporaneous species, persists in both public and professional scientific discourse. Not surprisingly, humans typically are (self-)designated as the “highest” organisms, with other living species ranked as higher or lower on the “evolutionary scale” according to how similar they are to this particular terminal node on the phylogeny of animals. As many prominent authors have noted, there is no scientifically defensible basis on which to rank living species in this way, regardless of how interesting or unique some aspect of their biology may be to human observers (e.g., Dawkins 1992; Gould 1994, 1996). This error does not so much reflect a specific misunderstanding of phylogenetic diagrams per se but a failure to grasp the very concept of common descent.’

nebule's avatar

Thanking you both very much! x

@whitenoise very interesting indeed….

Fyrius's avatar

Though I agree with your post, I must disagree here:

“and we’re often only guessing when we say how intelligent an animal is, based on brain size relative to body size.”

I believe the ethologists deserve more credit for their hard work. There have been extensive studies into for example whether chimpanzees are aware of what other people can see and hear, or whether they can infer what other people are trying to do even if those don’t actually succeed, whether they can be trained to understand numbers like we do, or whether baboons and macaques understand the family relationships between other monkeys.
I wrote a paper including this recently.

If you can be bothered, I’d advise Call & Tomasello (2008: Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, volume 12, number 5, pp. 187–192) for an overview into the main findings of the research of theory of mind in chimpanzees carried out in the previous thirty years. It’s pretty impressive.

Admittedly most research of intelligence seems to have been into (other) primates, mainly because they’re most interesting, but this should go to show that we do in principle have some advanced tests of intelligence beyond brain to body size ratio.

fireside's avatar

I’d go with birds:

bar-headed geese
whooper swans
Ruppell’s griffon
yellow-billed chough

Harp's avatar

@Fyrius Yes, some animals have been very thoroughly studied for cognitive function, but the majority haven’t. An animal is unlikely to be subjected to the level of scrutiny chimps and dolphins have received unless it appears to have the neural hardware to support complex cognition. We’re on our way to getting an idea of what the inner experience of a chimp may be, but we have no comparable sense of what the “mind” of a tortoise, or a tuna, is like. We wouldn’t expect to find much intelligence there based on their neural gear, so we don’t look very hard there.

Unless an animal were to surprise us with some behavior that feels to us like intelligence (and not simply instinct), then we’re likely to make guesses based on brain size, since that correlation appears largely valid.

Fyrius's avatar

Or indeed unless it actually displays behaviour that seems to rely on complex cognitive cerebral capacities.

Other than that, fair enough. Just wanted it to be said that there do exist more intricate tests than that. Though those tend to be applied to just a few types of life forms.

LostInParadise's avatar

Knowing what goes on in an animal’s head is pretty hard to determine. Recent work with a parrot has suggested they are much more intelligent than we had previously imagined. Does that make them higher animals?

Fyrius's avatar

Two remarks about that article.

”(...) complex tasks of the sort that only a few nonhuman species—chimpanzees, for instance—have been able to perform. But unlike those other creatures, Alex can talk, (...)”
That’s not as big a difference as the author probably thinks. Plenty of human-raised chimpanzees have also been taught to talk – in sign language.
And before anyone says that’s not the same, let me interject that yes, it is the same. Sign languages are based on a different mode of communication, but have the exact same kinds of grammatical, syntactic and even phonologic intricacies as spoken languages do, and allow for the same range of concepts to express.

Chimpanzees using sign language are mentioned later in the article, even, albeit as one item in a one-sentence list.

“The question of animal intelligence goes back at least to Descartes and his famous aphorism, “I think, therefore I am.” Animals cannot think, said Descartes, and therefore are inferior to humans.”
Good grief. Reading that hurt my brain. What a painfully ignorant phrase. As if poor René hasn’t been grossly misinterpreted enough yet.
“I think therefore I am” is a purely epistemic conclusion as to what anyone can know about themselves. It doesn’t say anything about thinking as a criterion of worthiness.
It’s a really stupid yet depressingly common misconception. I honestly don’t understand how people who interpret it thus can think they understand what the phrase means. It doesn’t even make sense that way.
That probably sounds arrogant, but this is a pet peeve of mine.

nebule's avatar

can’t believe i keep stirring things up! lol

Once again, thank you all for your input…it has certainly widened my knowledge of the matter!
P.S @Fyrius I think we agree on something;-p >Descartes

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