Sunday, 13 October 2013

09:39 – Understanding finger pointing is an extraordinarily complex cognitive function. Until recently, only two species were known to understand it: humans and dogs. Dogs don’t have to be taught to understand it; they do so naturally. Not surprising, given that humans and dogs have been living as symbiotes for more than 30,000 years. Nor is the behavior one-sided. Sometimes, for example, when I throw the ball down the hall it’ll go into Barbara’s office and roll behind her filing cabinet or somewhere else inaccessible to Colin. He’ll come and get me to let me know that he can’t get the ball. He’ll lead me down the hall and stand pointing at the ball with his snout. If he had an index finger, I don’t doubt that he’d be using it to point.

Even our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, do not understand finger-pointing, and cannot be taught to do so. It’s simply beyond their cognitive abilities. But now it seems that there is at least one population of elephants that understands finger-pointing naturally, without being taught. The implication is that elephants are extremely intelligent, more so than chimpanzees but probably not as intelligent as dogs.

I say that because as far as I know there’s no evidence that elephants are capable of deductive logic, let alone inductive logic. Dogs routinely use deductive logic. For example, Colin is excited by anything that makes noise, unfortunately including my laser printers. Many of our science kits have things added immediately before shipping, so when I get an order I carry a kit from the stock room to the kitchen, add whatever needs to be added, tape up the box, and carry the box to the foyer, where it sits on the table to await pickup. Colin watches me doing that, and then trots to my office, where he stands staring at the bottom drawer of my desk. That’s where I keep the shipping labels. After he watches me pull out a label, he shifts his attention to the manual-feed tray, waiting for me to insert the label. I send the label to print and yell at Colin to warn him not to fang the printer. He then leads me back to the foyer and watches me stick the label on the package. Some kits don’t require anything to be added before shipping, so they sit in the stock room taped up and ready to ship. When I take one of those from the stock room and put it on the foyer table, Colin heads for my office because he knows I can’t ship the kit without printing a postage label for it first.

It’s impressive enough for a dog to be able to watch a process and predict the next steps that must occur in sequence to lead to a particular result. What’s even more impressive is to watch a dog use inductive logic–to observe a result and know the steps that must have occurred to lead to that result. And I’ve seen our Border Collies do that often enough through the years to become convinced that they actually do use inductive logic. I know that people think I’m kidding when I say that Border Collies are smarter than some people, but I’m entirely serious.