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Posted By Patrick

What's going on in those monkey brains?? Scientists have shown that intelligence can vary within species that are not human – specifically, cotton-top tamarins. This isn’t really surprising for some people – I live with two dogs, and know many other dogs, and it’s pretty clear to me that they are not all equally good at connecting the dots (by odd coincidence, my dog Pasha is much smarter than average). But this study, led by Harvard-based Konika Banerjee and published in PloS One last week, shows that there is a variance in something like “g,” or “general intelligence,” among the 22 tamarins tested. The researchers assessed monkey performance on a number of tasks, and determined that while about 80% of the performance variation was due to circumstances related to the specific task or the environment, about 20% of the performance could be credited to a kind of monkey “g.” The study has received some high-profile coverage since publication, and the authors hope that a standardized test might be developed for primates to assess their general intelligence more effectively.

Now, I don’t want to be a spoilsport here, but plenty of critics within and outside of the psychology world question whether “g” exists, as well as whether it accurately represents intelligence. What skills get measured as part of “g”? How are subtasks weighted in assigning “g”? How important is speed to “g”? But let’s say that even if its accuracy is doubtful the concept of “g” has certain practical or useful qualities. For one thing, it gives a shape – at least a conceptual one – to something that is otherwise pretty vague. And that can be useful, but it’s also a bit like talking about God; the word “God” makes sense if you believe in a deity, because then you can picture this God, possibly as a benevolent old man, bearded and in flowing robes.  But if you’re an atheist, then “god” is a concept with no solid ground, and the word doesn’t really change that. Now we do have a general belief in intelligence but I still wonder if the little “g” is performing pretty much the same type of job as Big G – it lets us stick certain capacities together as “general intelligence” and then to talk about them, but that doesn’t give us any proof that this “g” exists as something other than as a creation of psychologists.

So that’s one thing. And the other is, if we are having trouble assigning “g” to humans (and we are!), how much more difficult is it going to be with other primates? It reminds me a bit of those Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes in which a higher life form, known, if my memory serves, as Q (so many letters today!), runs various tests to assess human intelligence and so forth, but is constantly misreading human actions and capacities (who can figure what that Jean-Luc Picard will do next?) with dramatic and occasionally comical consequences. So I wonder… are we the Q of monkeys?

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