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Rivalry helped drive intelligence among animals

Intelligence evolved among animals to help them handle the challenges that come along with conflict, according to a new study from the University of Bristol. The researchers found that beyond the various types of social interactions that have been thoroughly explored, battles among rivals have also driven cognition in animals ranging from insects all the way up to primates.

“Outside threats and opportunities likely present a range of cognitive challenges. Animals have to defend their territories, find mates and compete for resources – we believe negotiating such challenges requires considerable brain power,” said study lead author Dr. Ben Ashton.

“A vast amount of time and effort in the animal kingdom is devoted to gathering information about outsiders, and to avoiding, exploiting and winning interactions with them,” said study senior author Professor Andy Radford. “But this aspect of sociality has traditionally been ignored in explanations of animal brain evolution.”

Niccolò Machiavelli was an Italian philosopher and writer that is best known for his political work, The Prince – a commentary on how to establish and retain power.

Corsican military leader Napoleon Bonaparte is considered one of the greatest military minds in history whose strategic intelligence on the battlefield is still admired two centuries later.

“Biologists have shown how interactions with groupmates can generate ‘Machiavellian’ intelligence, the House of Cards-style cunning needed to get ahead in social politics within groups,” said study co-author Dr. Patrick Kennedy. “We argue that animals also need ‘Napoleonic’ intelligence, the more Game of Thrones-style sharpness necessary to triumph in a world packed with rival outsiders.”

Dr. Ashton noted that cognitive evolution is one of the most hotly debated topics in biology, with considerable uncertainty remaining over the predominant drivers. “Some of that uncertainty might be because a whole social axis – interactions with rival outsiders – has been largely ignored in both theoretical and empirical work.”

According to Dr. Kennedy, 

The possibility that outsiders have shaped human intelligence has been proposed before, said Dr. Kennedy, but it is time to apply this x theory beyond human cognition.

“What do big-brained animals have in common with Napoleon Bonaparte? We suspect that their ancestors possessed the intelligence to triumph in one of the highest-stakes games of all: outmanoeuvring outsiders,” said Professor Radford.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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