A thought on the anthropomorphic nature of assessments of animal intelligence

Title’s almost longer than the post…

Why is it that when alligators balance twigs on their snouts to lure nest building birds to their doom, that we say ‘smart alligators!’  but we don’t generally say ‘smart insects!” when blister beetle larva do this:

Larvae of the blister beetle Meloe franciscanus aggregate on the end of plant stems to mimic the appearance of female Habropoda pallida.

“Young larvae (triungulins) of the blister beetle have a remarkable system of finding a bee host, Habropoda pallida(Anthophoridae). The beetle larvae aggregate together on the vegetation and mimic the appearance of a female bee. Male bees confuse the larvae aggregate for a female and attempt to mate. This results in the larval aggregation attaching to the underside of the male. When the male finally finds a female and mates, the beetle larvae transfer themselves to the female and get transported back to the nest where they feed on the pollen collected by the female for her offspring.”

If the beetle larvae’s behavior can be explained by natural selection without appeal to the intelligence of the insects, the alligator’s behavior can likewise be explained. Yet, in the link above, the hunting behavior of the alligators immediately triggered a ‘Wow, they must be smarter than we thought! They use tools!’ response in the human observers who, as professional biologists, should know a lot better.

Insects don’t look like us and don’t behave like us. They do all sorts of creepy insect things. Alligators, for all their inhuman weirdness, behave a lot like us, in that they patiently hunt food in a manner reminiscent of how humans hunt food. Their food even looks like food.

So, they’re smart, but insects are not. Any other reasons to suppose this?


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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