Last November, several stories appeared proclaiming there to be good scientific evidence that dogs are more intelligent than cats. The headline for Fox News was “Dogs Are Smarter Than Cats, Oxford Scientists Say.” The headline for the London Telegraph was “Dogs are 'smarter than cats.' Dogs are cleverer than cats because their friendly character has helped them develop bigger brains, a study set to end the argument between pet lovers has shown.”
Are these claims really true? If scientists conducted such a study, and it was published in a scientific journal, the claims must be true, right? Not so fast. What the news reports said, what the scientists said in interviews and what the research study actually showed were all different.
This is not uncommon in the news world where an eye catching headline is everything, even if it stretches the truth, and where the most read stories are the ones announcing some totally new way of looking at things or discounting some established belief. Reader, beware.
So what did the scientific article actually say? The authors concluded that after looking at the brains and bodies of over 500 living and extinct species of mammals, that brain size was positively correlated with sociality. This means that species that live in stable social groups, like dogs, wolves and horses had relatively bigger brains than do solitary species such as domestic cats.
From there, the lead author, Dr. Suzanne Schultz said in an interview with the London Telegraph, “All dogs are quite good at solving problems, which gives credence to the traditional image of the cunning fox which is a member of the same family. Dogs descended from wolves which appear to have the biggest brains as they live in large family groups.” This did not accurately reflect the data from the study, but instead was her interpretation and extension of the results. And her choice of foxes as an example is a poor one as they are among the least social of the canids.
So a number of assumptions were made, not all of which are supportable. First, big brains are correlated with higher levels of intelligence. Second that we can compare intelligence in a meaningful way across species. And third that intelligence arises from living in social groups. All of these assumptions are subject to much debate and there is little agreement about the “truth” among experts.
Most behavioral scientists can’t even agree what intelligence is or how to measure it. How do you come up with a fair test of intelligence for animals as different as dogs and cats? Comparative psychologists have wrestled with the problem for years and have not found reasonable procedures.
Each species is adapted to its own social and physical environment and have evolved different ways to solve the problems those environments present to them. Dogs do some things better than cats, while cats do other things better than dogs. Depending upon the test you give them, you could show one performs better than the other.
As an example, feral cats are much better at surviving and reproducing than are feral dogs, and for nature that is the ultimate test of success. So you could argue that cats are smarter than dogs because when left on their own they are able to adapt to different environments, find food, avoid predators and breed more successfully than dogs. But is that really what we have in mind when trying to compare “intelligence”?
Perhaps the most important lesson from this is to be skeptical about what you read in the popular press. Many times they get it all wrong.
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