More than just a good nose

Dogs at work sniffing

The human mind is profoundly adept in comparative analysis. Each day brings many fundamental decisions: what to eat, how to get it, who to trust, how and where to spend the minutes between waking and sleeping. We rely on comparisons to make those decisions (oatmeal or donuts?), evaluating options based on how they’ll satisfy our needs.

We use comparisons to apprehend the world. Look no further than your search engine results after typing in a noun:

Google search for term ‘speakers’

With about 1.6 trillion web pages containing the search term ‘speakers’, the search results would be mostly useless without some means to prioritize them. The search engine logic assumes I’m shopping for speakers, so all of the above-the-fold content is based on comparisons.

The top section provides a price comparison from ads. Google also offers, helpfully or not, a section it calls ‘People also ask’, which provides different formulations of ‘what is the best’. Apparently, what people want is to compare things based on price and quality, and not – for instance – to understand how those things work. I’m sure those answers can be found in the 1.6 trillion web pages I didn’t see, but which exist. If most people wanted to see those pages (and if there was a profit motive in prioritizing them), they would float to the top of the heap.

Comparisons – based on what?

A smart dog, from the human perspective (Photo by Samson Katt from Pexels)

To compare is a habit of thought that we bring even to the quality of how we and others think. How smart is my dog compared to: me, other individual dogs, other dog breeds, other animals?

Most of us aren’t trained in cognition, but we compare intelligence anyway and assume our conclusions are valid. After all, we assume we’re arbiters of the best restaurants, the best pizza, the best electronic gear, the best jeans, the best music. Lacking expertise or knowledge in no way disqualifies you from declaring that the best pizza for you is the best pizza full stop.  

It’s a natural progression to go from comparisons of taste to comparisons that should be based on fact. People feel comfortable enough to weigh in on how smart an individual is, whether that individual is a fellow human or man’s best friend. We regularly assess our own cognitive ability, even though self-assessments are arguably the most unreliable. You may be over-confident from ignorance or assume that others share your level of expertise when you unconsciously compare yourself to others. To counteract inherent subjectivity, we sometimes use scientifically-based cognitive assessments to provide a ‘fact-based’ analysis of how relatively smart a person is. Unfortunately, those assessments themselves are biased to the cultural norms of the test-makers.

In Frans de Waal’s brilliant (and eminently readable) book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he argues that all animals – including humans – are as smart as they need to be to be successful as a species. To understand how well an animal solves a problem, for instance, you have to be able to think like that animal to even understand the problem to be solved. The fact that other animals haven’t created iPhones, for instance, doesn’t say that they’re less intelligent than humans. Does the iPhone solve a problem or meet a need for any animal other than homo sapiens? The challenge for the researcher who wants to quantify the intelligence of a non-human animal is to perceive the world as that animal. It’s seemingly an impossible ask.

Intelligence for what?

Many examples about the superiority of human-made technologies go back to the idea of our own (assumed superior) physiology. This argument says that since we humans have hands and opposable thumbs, we’ve been able to create tool-based technologies that have allowed us to dominate our environments. And yet, individual humans without the means to manipulate objects manually are no less intelligent for that difference. I wouldn’t be so stupid to compare myself favorably to Stephen Hawking’s intelligence, even though I can use my hands to type with ease. We have to break through implicit mental constructs to understand intelligence. Always consider: intelligence for what?

Photo by Jade Flesher from Pexels

Frans de Waal offers many examples of non-human (including non-primate) animals whose intelligence is manifested in areas presumed to be unique to humans: theory of mind, planning, awareness of time (past, present, and future) and politics. In reviewing de Waal’s book for The Atlantic magazine, Alison Gopnik included this bit of research:

“The evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare and his colleagues gave a subordinate chimp a choice between pieces of food that a dominant chimp had seen hidden and other pieces it had not seen hidden. The subordinate chimp, who watched all the hiding, stayed away from the food the dominant chimp had seen, but took the food it hadn’t seen.”

Alison Gopnik

The subordinate chimp demonstrated many attributes that were long-considered to be ‘human’. These attributes aren’t so special after all.

Cognition and Scent

Evolutionary cognition is relevant to medical detection dogs in that dogs aren’t just organic versions of electronic noses. They use their intelligence to compare scents, differentiating and aggregating similarities into patterns. They use these patterns to compare and analyze.

When a dog smells a human, the dog takes in a volume of data that’s the equivalent of the Google search for the term ‘speakers’. The dog works out which scents are common to other humans, what scents are simply this human’s smell, and whether the target smell is present. All of this cognition must occur within about the same amount of time as needed for Google’s search results (0.82 seconds in my example above).

You could say that what dogs can do as a species is similar to the technology created by people celebrated as some of the most intelligent humans on the planet. Which is the more intelligent species?

Not all of us are capable of creating the Google search algorithms from scratch; we pay (with our data and clicks) those who can to do what we individually cannot. Wouldn’t it be smart to work with animals who can smell parts per trillion to help us identify molecules that are harmful to us?

2 thoughts on “More than just a good nose

  1. This is brilliant! It touches on many topics I’m interested in. I’ve always believed in the intelligence of different species, and Frans de Waal’s research is always fascinating.

    1. So good to hear from another Frans de Waal reader! I always appreciate scientists who write about their research in a way that’s accessible to the general public. Not every scientist is also a great story-teller; de Waal is exceptional. Thanks for your comment!

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