Which Animal Will Develop Human-Level Intelligence in the Future?

By Daniel Kolitz on at

Animals that think and talk like humans have long enchanted the public—in the form of myths, children’s books, and overrated TV shows. Somehow even the most mundane aspects of daily life—paying taxes, or preparing sandwiches, or staring at yourself in the mirror with a drained, sallow look and thinking, who am I, how did I get here, etc.—are infinitely more amusing when it’s a squirrel who’s doing them. But will there ever be a day when this endlessly renewable source of joy/delight will be available outside of entertainment? When you can simply stroll into your closest park to watch two animals grumbling about the weather? And—if so—which animal will be the first to develop this human-like intelligence? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of animal experts to find out.


Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Associate Professor, Psychology, Vanderbilt University, and the author of The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable

There’s no easy answer to this one. First, because it depends on how you define intelligence. Plenty of animals out there have the same capabilities that we have, at least in terms of direct problem solving, visual memory, hierarchical planning, etc. As for what animal comes closest to humans in terms of numbers of cortical neurons—and therefore supposedly in the extent of their biological capabilities—that would be gorillas and orangutans. But notice that they live much shorter lives, and have much more limited cultures; their societies have not been as organised as ours, as complex as ours, for as long as ours has. So there’s really no straightforward comparison.

Are there animals out there that could learn to do things that we do? The answer is definitely yes. Look up Ayumu, the video game-playing Japanese chimpanzee. She beat college students at the game—until somebody decided to give graduate students a fair chance by letting them practice for just as long, and then, it was a tie.

“Plenty of animals out there have the same capabilities that we have, at least in terms of direct problem solving, visual memory, hierarchical planning, etc.”

Julian Keenan

Professor of Biology and Director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Lab at Montclair State University, who has studied the brain and self-awareness for 20 years

The Chimpanzee (Pan troglodyte) and the Bonobo (Pan paniscus) are typically the first candidates that most cognitive neuroscientists would name as potentially gaining human like intelligence. Why?

While all would identify tool making, tool use, and a higher social hierarchy, it is actually the fact that chimps (and Orangutans: Pongo pygmaeus) have self-awareness that makes them possible candidates. It is not to say that other factors such as counting and communication are not important, they are. However, it is the ability to reflect on their own thinking that drives the difference between them and numerous other cognitively advanced animals.

As smart as computers have gotten, they still fall short in this category and until computers or other animals reach this point, we will not see a ‘human’ counterpart. Self-awareness is the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking, to know that you know. It allows one to see oneself as a third person (i.e, in the third person perspective). With a little imagination, for example, you can see yourself in three different futures (e.g., “what would I be like if I had gone to college”) or even pasts (e.g., “ had I said that I bet I would have gotten the job”). It constructs a new way of existence that allows for self-evaluation and how we fit in with the world. Furthermore, both humans and chimps use their self-awareness to model other’s thoughts... This ability known as Theory of Mind drives many intelligent behaviours. Adding self-awareness and theory of mind, one can take tool making to a new level.

The apes may or may not achieve all the human levels of intelligence. They communicate, deceive, think abstractly, murder, organise ‘governments’, and model problems. While the potential exists, much will depend on the pressures they face over the next generations.

“The apes may or may not achieve all the human levels of intelligence. They communicate, deceive, think abstractly, murder, organise ‘governments’, and model problems.”

Todd K. Shackleford

Distinguished Professor and Chair of Psychology and Co-Director of the Evolutionary Psychology Lab at Oakland University

Many animals already are far more intelligent than humans. Compared to dogs, humans are olfactory idiots. Thirteen-lined ground squirrels can easily detect the difference between a half-sibling and a full sibling, and they don’t need expensive DNA fingerprint analyses to do so.

Perhaps there is one domain in which humans display uniquely sophisticated abilities. Humans are capable of stupefying cruelty toward other humans and toward animals—in prisons, in slaughterhouses, in churches, in schools, and in homes. No other animal deliberately inflicts pain and suffering so effectively, so ruthlessly, and with such enthusiasm. Male chimpanzees may be capable of a sort of half-witted malice in their prolonged attacks on lone males from rival groups. But humans alone are the masters of cruelty, so sophisticated, so advanced that no animal stands a chance of ever catching us.

“Humans alone are the masters of cruelty, so sophisticated, so advanced that no animal stands a chance of ever catching us.”

Steven M. Platek

Professor, Psychology, Georgia Gwinnett College, whose research focuses on behavioural and neural correlates of mate selection, and parent-offspring conflict, among other things

While much science fiction—Planet of the Apes, The Terminator—has delivered cinema depicting non-humans developing a human-like intelligence, in the scheme of evolutionary biology the question makes little sense. Humans, like every other critter on this planet, are the subject of millions of years of evolutionary pressures. Animals tend to evolve specific adaptations that optimise their survival and (ultimately) reproduction. All evolution is sexual selection, because in the absence of a trait providing a reproductive advantage, there is no evolution.

Take for example one of my favourite organisms on the planet: The bombardier beetle. They occupy every continent and have evolved a mechanism in which, upon predation (ending up in the mouth of a predator, for example), they combine a special chemical with excrement to produce a high temperature burst from their excretory canal. Essentially, they make their ass explode! The bombardier beetle puts a lot of metabolic energy into this adaptation, because without it—or if the mechanism fails—the beetle ends up in the belly of a predator. And since all evolution is reproductive, we have to remember that it’s typically difficult to reproduce when you are dead. So what if we were to ask, “What species is the likeliest to evolve a bombardier-like exploding anus?”

While it would be fun to think about all the mornings after eating bad spicy food being an analogue, there would be very few if any organisms that would suddenly change the course of evolution to generate this adaptation. Similarly, human-like intelligence is our species’ exploding ass! The human brain, and the IQ, language, personality, executive functions that come along with it, are all the products of evolutionary pressure that hominid ancestors faced during human evolutionary history. Those pressures were likely very unique to our ancestors, because we do not see any other organism with similar levels of intelligence and/or language, etc. Each organism exists as uniquely adapted to the current environment; NOT optimally adapted, uniquely adapted. This was laid out in Darwin’s tree of life in On the Origin of Species. That is, there would be little reason for any organism, not even the so-called “advanced” organisms such as the chimpanzee, orangutan, crows, elephant, dolphin, etc. to end up like the unique outcome that evolution produced in the Homo sapien.

OK, but all that being said makes me sound like a lame and boring academic that can’t think outside the box. However, while I cannot name a specific organism that I think will evolve human-like intelligence, I will hypothesise that if an organism does so, it will almost assuredly do so under the confines of human domestication. Take for example the fact that several chimpanzees have been taught sign language under domestication. Those chimpanzees have also been observed teaching their offspring signs. I could see a similar thing happening in any organism that is fully or partially domesticated and has the innate biology for culture. Examples would include, but are not limited to: the great apes, particularly the two species of chimpanzees and the orangutan; cetaceans such as dolphins and orca; elephants; and possibly even the common domesticated dog.

“The human brain, and the IQ, language, personality, executive functions that come along with it, are all the products of evolutionary pressure that hominid ancestors faced during human evolutionary history. Those pressures were likely very unique to our ancestors, because we do not see any other organism with similar levels of intelligence...”

Robin Dunbar

Professor, Evolutionary Psychology, University of Oxford, and the author of Human Evolution, among other books

No animal will develop human-like intelligence if its circumstances don’t become similar to those that required our ancestors to develop bigger brains. Those circumstances were the need to evolve bigger social groups in order to cope with the new kinds of environments they were invading (more open habitats with many predators). The ones with the best chances are the apes and the dolphins, or maybe the elephants, because they have the biggest brains after us. The apes and the elephants are in danger of going extinct before they have a chance. So maybe the best bet is the dolphin family.

“The ones with the best chances are the apes and the dolphins, or maybe the elephants, because they have the biggest brains after us.”

Katerina Johnson

Research Associate, Psychiatry, University of Oxford, whose research explores connections between the microbiome, brain and behaviour

At its core, we can think of intelligence as an organism’s ability to adapt to its environment. I would argue that in many instances bacteria are already just as ‘intelligent’ as humans in their own way. Although bacteria aren’t animals at all, many of their behaviours have recognisable parallels to our own human societies and other animal societies.

Bacteria are able to communicate with each other using an array of different chemicals and have many genes important for social function. One particular type of communication that they exhibit, known as quorum sensing, is used by bacteria to help make group decisions within a colony and mediate microbial cooperation. They can use quorum sensing to determine their density and then take appropriate action—for example, preventing overgrowth if the colony starts getting too big. Disease-causing bacteria use this special type of communication to know when the population has reached a high enough number to launch an attack on the host.

Bacteria can form their own communities, called biofilms, that emerge from the collective behaviour of thousands of individual bacterium cells. These biofilms can be elaborate structures, with the bacteria showing division of labour whereby they differentiate into subpopulations with specialised functions to help maintain the colony. For example, bacteria on the edge of a biofilm divide to grow the colony, those in the middle may be specialised to form spores, whilst those by the substrate often function to secure the biofilm to the surface.

Bacteria are masters of adapting to their environment, which has helped them to colonise pretty much every habitat on Earth. For example, when they are exposed to unfavourable conditions, they can accelerate their mutation rate, meaning they can adapt very quickly. Even though humans have adapted to live in many parts of the world, there are still places where we can’t survive, despite our intelligent innovations. Bacteria can also swap genes, even between different species, to quickly acquire new beneficial properties such as antibiotic resistance.

Obviously bacteria don’t have awareness and intellect the way humans do but they are arguably just as efficient, if not better than humans, at collectively solving problems and dealing with their environment. Plus there are doubtless other clever mechanisms that bacteria have that we are yet to find out about.

“I would argue that in many instances bacteria are already just as ‘intelligent’ as humans in their own way.”

Featured image: Illustration: Benjamin Currie (Gizmodo)