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How Smart Are Elephants Compared To Humans

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Elephants Have The Most Neurons. Why Aren’t They The Smartest Animals?

A bird flies over a family of elephants in Amboseli National Park, southeast of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, April 25, 2016. Reuters/Thomas Mokoya

When we talk about intelligent animals, we tend to give credit to a few creatures: talkative dolphins, long-remembered elephants, tool-wielding monkeys, and puzzle-solving crows.

But do we really understand how intelligent it is, how capable we are of communicating thoughts and even dare to say it?

Many of us don’t give them enough credit, according to a Sept. 13 talk at Cooper Union by ecologist Carl Safina, author of “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.”

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Safina explained that African elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park can distinguish the language and sounds of Maasai warriors from the language and sounds of the farming tribes that live in the same area.

University of Sussex researchers Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon published a study in 2014 documenting this remarkable ability.

Safina explained that Maasai tribesmen occasionally attack elephants with their spears and kill them. Elephants know they are dangerous.

Even before McComb and Shannon published their work, researchers knew that elephants became defensive and ready to fight when they saw the red clothing worn by warriors. If they smelled Maasai clothes, they would be ready to run away. But these giant creatures are basically fine if they smell or see the clothes worn by farmers from the Kamba tribe, another group in the region.

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McComb and Shannon showed that elephants can tell the difference between the Maasai language and the Kamba language.

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“They have very clear behavioral responses in all of these situations,” McComb told Virginia Morrell of National Geographic when the study was first published.

So McComb and Shannon decided to see how elephants responded to language. They recorded men, women and children from Maasai and Kamba groups saying a simple phrase in their own language: “Look, look, a group of elephants are coming.”

The elephants ignored the voices of Maasai women and children, even if the children were male. They ignored the voice of Kamba’s men. But when they heard the Maasai men speaking their language, they were ready to flee.

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Safina explained in her speech: “They understand that there are different people. (That’s more than we can say for most people’s perception of elephants.)

“Elephants’ decision-making is very precise and shows how they have coexisted with us as long as they can,” McComb told Morel. “They would rather run than engage with a predatory human.”

Empathy, as he describes it, is “the capacity of the mind to match the mood of one’s companions.” And as for recognizing that someone dangerous is coming and it’s time to go, it matches the elephant’s behavior.

Unfortunately, these behavioral adaptations are quite unable to keep pace with human firepower. They cannot avoid hunters firing automatic weapons from helicopters.

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“In Roman times, elephants were found from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope,” except in the harshest parts of the desert, Safina said. Now, these intelligent, communicative creatures are “going extinct so we can shave their teeth.” A place to acquire and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

We often hear “bigger is better” which may be true for paychecks but not for other things. I am of course talking about the brain, what else? Nature has an amazing variety of life, each with a unique brain. Some of these brains grow into huge organs, such as the African elephant brain with a 5 kg (11 lb) brain and 257 billion neurons. Some brains remain small, such as the roundworm brain, which weighs only a fraction of a gram with about 300 neurons. Humans average 1.4 kilograms (3 pounds) of brains, give or take 86 billion neurons.

This begs the question, if humans are superior to animals like elephants, why are we the most self-proclaimed creatures on earth? How is it that an elephant with almost 3 times as many neurons doesn’t laugh at our struggle with quantum mechanics?

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Like a late night news report, the reason may surprise you. To put it bluntly, humans are not that special. As mentioned above, we don’t have the biggest brain with the most neurons. Also, we do not have a brain with the largest surface area. The dolphins beat us there with their complex brain folds. If we consider body size, we get a little closer, but we lose out to a marmoset (a small monkey that honestly isn’t that bright). A new measurement called “encephalization quotient” (EQ) was developed to note that the relationship between brain and body size is not linear. It’s a complete formula, but it gave us what we needed for our breath, we were on a high! Based on size, we have a brain that is 7 times larger than it should be. Sounds great to us, but the measurement was a bit off for the other animals. If their EQ is to be believed, a rhesus monkey should be smarter than a gorilla, which it isn’t. This brings us back to square one.

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Humans are generally not that different, except when it comes to intelligence. Absolute brain size isn’t what makes us smart, nor is surface area, EQ, or neuron density. So why is an elephant, with a huge brain and more neurons, not as intelligent or even more intelligent than a human? This is where neuroscience and biology get a little complicated, an example might help.

Consider the world’s fastest supercomputer. At the time of writing, this is a meeting hosted by IBM. It has 9,216 GPUs, 27,648 GPUs and can perform 200 quadrillion calculations per second. For comparison, it would take everyone on earth working together and doing 1 calculation per second for almost a year to do what this device can do in 1 second. It’s going to model the universe, discover cancer, and explore genetics on a scale we can’t even imagine. But can it run Minecraft? No, this is not relocatable. However my old quad core i7 laptop can run minecraft just fine. Isn’t it weird that a huge computer with more memory and processing power than I have in my apartment can’t run a simple game that my crappy laptop can? So much for “super” computers.

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The truth is that the thing is not designed to run Minecraft. This laptop is designed to run those complex astronomical and biological models, while my laptop is designed to run games and various other tasks that I find useful. I’m sure with a bit of fiddling you can run any game on those systems, but you’re bound to struggle because of it. When comparing brains, the absolute number of neurons isn’t the only thing to look at. Just like absolute processing power isn’t the only thing you’re looking for when you need to play Minecraft. What’s in a machine, how it’s wired, how it’s wired, all change depending on the purpose of the computer.

Human brain and elephant brain are different in several ways. For example, different sections have different concentrations of neurons. Despite having three times the number of neurons, elephants have only one-third the number of neurons in their cerebral cortex. The cortex happens to be the part of the brain that we associate with many of our “higher cognitive functions” and intelligence. All those elephant brain cells are concentrated in other areas, such as the cerebellum, which is used for movement (which makes the trunk look so powerful).

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The way the brain is arranged is another factor. We estimate that Neanderthals had larger brains than us. They had a brain capacity of 1600 cubic centimeters. When researchers recently grew some Neanderthal brain matter, we saw that they were very different from us. Human mini-brains were nice smooth spheres, while Neanderthal brains looked more like popcorn. The consequences are not yet clear, but it brings us to this point: brains are complex. Brains are not homogeneous masses of neurons and supporting cells. Brains have their own structure, neurons form columns and layers, they have specific paths to send and receive specific information. The way neurons are structured and connected affects how information is processed. Different animals have different needs, different senses and different bodies. Brains are designed to deal with all of this. An elephant must control its trunk to get food, not solve math problems to get a good grade.

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