In November 2010, scientists at Oxford University laid rest to one of the world’s most divisive issues. They claimed unequivocally that dogs are smarter than cats. I have been fuming over it ever since, and I finally broke down and decided to take a public look at the research.
An article in the Daily Mail at the time laid out the scientists’ logic pretty clearly. Dogs are more social, and social interactions require lots of brainpower. The demands of social behavior require relatively larger brains. Animals with relatively larger brains must be smarter than those with relatively smaller brains. Therefore, in the words of the scientists, dogs are smarter. Here’s a quote.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the brains of monkeys expanded the most over evolutionary history, followed by horses, dolphins, camels, and dogs.
Groups of mammals with relatively bigger brains tend to live in stable groups, they found.
The researchers believe that living in a group is more demanding mentally than having a lonely existence.
Before I dig into this (and I have a lot to say), I want to touch on another aspect of the “dogs are smarter” argument that I saw at the time that covered the famous trainability argument. Dogs are more attuned to human desires than cats are. They instinctively follow our hands when we point at something. They want to please us, and therefore they are more easily trained. They behave as if they are better at predicting our desires. Therefore many people think they’re smarter.
I am a dog owner and a hardcore dog lover. I would go so far as to say that dogs embody just about everything good in the world. I believe that dogs are perfectly adapted to be human companions. Life without dogs would be empty to me. But anyone who thinks dogs truly are intelligent has never witnessed my pal Buster sniffing his own anus in a confused fashion after ripping a fart.
I believe that this argument comes down to your definition of intelligence. And the people who claim, decisively, that dogs are smarter than cats are defining smart in the wrong way.
For instance, relative brain size does not equal smart. Birds of prey have relatively large brains, and most of that extra size is devoted to cerebral cortex (the part of the brain that truly counts). However, if you investigate further you’ll find that the extra brain size is devoted specifically to visual processing. Birds of prey see very, very well. But they’re not especially smart.
Dogs, and for that matter humans, have large brains primarily to support the rigors of social interactions. There is no doubt that social interactions, like vision, require large quantities of brain power. But does being social make you inherently intelligent? Consider this: Keeping up with gossip is one of the most social activities humans perform (in fact, many evolutionary theorists believe that the human brain evolved primarily as a gossip-managing tool).
People who follow every activity of the Kardashians, know about every baby bump in Hollywood, and keep up with who has slept with whom on Jersey Shore use large amounts of brainpower in a social fashion. But I feel very comfortable saying that these activities, although highly social, and quite demanding of gray matter, do not fit any sort of generally accepted definition of intelligent.
Finally, let us not confound pleasing humans with intelligence. If I hold up a baby carrot and tell Buster to sit, he will do it. If I hold up that same carrot and tell a cat and a Nobel laureate in physics to sit, they probably will not. Does this make Buster the smartest creature in the room?
I’m not saying that cats are smarter than dogs. Frankly, I don’t know which species is smarter. I do know that neither one of them will ever understand quantum physics, and I honestly don’t think it matters. Each species fulfills its role perfectly, and no cat or dog lover would want either species to change.
But if you are going to claim decisively that one species is smarter than the other, you had better use a definitition of intelligence that is universally accepted. In my opinion, the debate over the intelligence of cats and dogs is far from resolved.