Jul 30, 2019

G: The World's Smartest Animal

This episode begins with a rant. This rant, in particular, comes from Dan Engber - a science writer who loves animals but despises animal intelligence research. Dan told us that so much of the way we study animals involves tests that we think show a human is smart ... not the animals we intend to study. 

Dan’s rant got us thinking: What is the smartest animal in the world? And if we threw out our human intelligence rubric, is there a fair way to figure it out?

Obviously, there is. And it’s a live game show, judged by Jad, Robert … and a dog.

For the last episode of G, Radiolab’s miniseries on intelligence, we’re sharing that game show with you. It was recorded as a live show back in May 2019 at the Greene Space in New York City. We invited two science writers, Dan Engber and Laurel Braitman, and two comedians, Tracy Clayton and Jordan Mendoza, to compete against one another to find the world’s smartest animal. What resulted were a series of funny, delightful stories about unexpectedly smart animals and a shift in the way we think about intelligence across all the animals - including us.

Check out the video of our live event here

This episode was produced by Rachael Cusick and Pat Walters, with help from Nora Keller and Suzie Lechtenberg. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris and Dorie Chevlin.

Special thanks to Bill Berloni and Macy (the dog) and everyone at The Greene Space.

Radiolab’s “G” is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate

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PAT WALTERS: Hey, this is Pat Walters coming at you today with the final episode of our Radiolab mini-series on intelligence, G. And so for this last episode, we wanted to shift the mood a little bit. Because as we were putting this series together, we did lots of stories on human intelligence, but we also found ourselves thinking about intelligence in other animals. And so to get into that, we decided to host an event all about animal intelligence. And today, we're gonna share that event with you. Just a quick warning, there are some curse words in the show, so bear that in mind.


PAT: And so the reason that we're doing this is because a couple months ago, I ended up on the phone with this science writer I really love named Dan Engber. And Dan went on a rant about how messed up it is that we only seem able to talk about animal intelligence in terms of our own intelligence. He said so much of animal intelligence research is built on making animals do stuff that we feel like humans would be good at doing, instead of considering their intelligence on their own terms. And so tonight, we decided we would do an episode about animal intelligence that shifts the focus from us to them, that considers their unique abilities on their own terms. And in doing so hopefully might help us redefine a little bit what we think about intelligence in general for all of us. And because we're humans and we like contests, we decided we'd make it a competition.


PAT: So here's how it'll work. We have four contestants who will engage in a series of head-to-head bouts to convince a panel of judges that their animal is the smartest. I'm gonna bring up our first pair of contestants in a moment, but first let's meet our judges. Ooh, we got a little music. Nice! Okay. So first, please welcome -- these two guys have done hundreds of stories about all kinds of smart animals. Please welcome the co-hosts of Radiolab, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.




PAT: Kind of had to use the guys, obvious choices. But we also invited one more surprise judge.


PAT: The real star of our judging panel. From humble beginnings in a shelter in Oklahoma City, she's risen to the highest levels of success in show business in New York. Her television credits include High Maintenance and The Leftovers. And she has appeared in more productions of the Broadway play Annie in the role of Sandy than any other actor. Like any great star, she goes by only one name. Please welcome Macy.


PAT: Macy is a dog, she's about 35 pounds, has scruffy brown fur. She trotted right onto stage and hopped onto a chair next to Jad and Robert.


PAT: Okay. So before we start, I just want to ask the judges here one question to kind of set the terms and make sure we all know what we're looking for. I want you guys to just define intelligence in, you know, two or three sentences. How would you define what you're looking for in the contestants' stories tonight? Robert, why don't you start?


ROBERT KRULWICH: Animal intelligence?


PAT: Animal intelligence.


ROBERT: Well, I would say that a very smart animal should be asked how well do you understand your world? Knowing that some are sniffers and some are tasters and some are good fliers and so on. But really, when you see a fox on a snowy day jump into a pound of snow and somehow land right on the little mouse that's two feet down? I think that's a smart, smart animal.


PAT: Jad?


JAD ABUMRAD: I think what I'm gonna pay attention to are arguments on behalf of creatures where you see the creatures encounter some kind of obstacle and then problem-solve their way around it.


PAT: Mm-hmm.


JAD: So creatures that are flexible, can adapt very quickly, and -- and I'm gonna give a special nod I think to creatures that show collective intelligence, or like, moral intelligence if that's even a thing.


PAT: Okay.


JAD: So that's what I'm gonna be paying attention to.


PAT: Okay. Good. Macy, what do you think? How would you define intelligence, Macy?




ROBERT: She's just repeating Jad, really.


PAT: So once we had our judges set, we brought our contestants onto the stage. And the way it worked is they each had four minutes to make case for why they thought their animal was the smartest of them all. And at the end of each round, the judges would vote and we'd bring out the next two contestants.


PAT: Y'all ready to meet our contestants?




PAT: Okay, good! Okay, so first up we have Tracy Clayton and Jordan Mendoza.


PAT: Tracy Clayton hosts the hit podcast Another Round, and more recently the podcast Strong Black Legends.






PAT: And Jordan Mendoza is a comedian, a writer for Comedy Central, and hosts a live comedy and science show in Brooklyn called Drunk Science.


PAT: Okay. So Tracy, what -- what animal did you bring for this first entry?


TRACY CLAYTON: The smartest animal in the world hands down is the crow.






PAT: Okay. Okay. So we have the crow.


JORDAN MENDOZA: I was just kidding. I don't really -- no, they're fine. Yeah.


TRACY CLAYTON: No, he meant that. This is war now. This is the fight. We're fighting. We're fighting.


PAT: And Jordan, what's your entry for this round?


JORDAN MENDOZA: A slime mold.


PAT: So first round: crow versus slime mold.


PAT: We're gonna start with Tracy.


PAT: Ready?




PAT: Go.


TRACY CLAYTON: So, if you don't know how amazing crows are it's not your fault. It's because the media is racist and they told you how to feel about crows. For example, the most famous crows in the world are these. Here you got the dumbs -- the dumbs, the crows from Dumbo. They're dressed like street pimps.


PAT: Five crows wearing brightly-colored hats, one of them's smoking a cigar.


TRACY CLAYTON: No jobs, shiftless, lazy. Black? Coincidence, I'm sure. And then here, this is a -- this is Jim Crow. If you don't know that, Google. You got to do a Google. We don't -- we don't have enough time. So, here's why crows are the best and the smartest. Number one, they are extremely resourceful. Have you all heard of this dude named Aesop? He wrote some fables. One of them was about a crow who had to get, like, a treat or something out of, like, a pitcher or something. And so what he did was he dropped stones into the pitcher so the water level would raise, got what he wanted. Guess what? Crows really do that for real in real life.


PAT: Then Tracy showed a video of a crow and a half-empty glass of water. And the crow kept adding stones into the glass until the water was at the rim and the crow could get a treat.


TRACY CLAYTON: Most of my exes cannot do this. Crows can solve problems, puzzles with as many as eight steps. Definitely none of my exes could do that. Point number dos. Crows can be taught to talk. Right? The surprise gasps.


ROBERT: To talk what? To talk crow? Or to talk ...


TRACY CLAYTON: To say human English words, or human words. Human languages. Crows are songbirds, y'all. So are ravens. But you don't know that because they're not parrots, they're not brightly-colored. They're black. Again, racist. Just because they don't sing the same way the parrots do, you know, it's not -- it doesn't count. But their vocalization skills are really, really, really good. When you get a chance, Google “Talking Crow” and you'll find some -- some videos. I think we have one.


[CLIP, crow: Hello.]




[CLIP, crow: Hello?]




PAT: Oh my God! There it is.


TRACY CLAYTON: Yup. Yup. Exactly.


JAD: That's a real crow video?


TRACY CLAYTON: Yes, that's an actual crow. Crows can talk, as can ravens. Point number three, B, C. Point number C, crows have funerals, right? But they have funerals for good reasons. Not that humans don't have funerals for good reasons, but humans have funerals to make ourselves feel better. Like, "Oh, my God. I miss Big Mama so much. I just need to see her one more time before she goes on to the whatever in the sky." Crows -- also we still have wakes where we literally sit around and look at a dead body and wait for it to wake up, even though we know it's not going to. Evolve out of that, please. It's not -- it's not done. Here's why crows have funerals, right? So if Rashad dies, bless Rashad, he's just plop. Rashad is the crow. It's a crow named Rashad. So the crows are like -- oh, can I -- what is -- what is the cuss word thing?


PAT: You can say whatever.


TRACY CLAYTON: Oh, shit man. Rashad, what the fuck bro? What happened? And so all the crows will, like, congregate around Rashad to see what killed him so they can be like, "We need to stay away from whatever Rashad was doing because look at Rashad now," you know? Point number four is that they can recognize faces for up to five years and they hold grudges. So if you walk past a ...


PAT: Uh, it's actually two and a half years.


TRACY CLAYTON: ... doing some shit, they just like "Nah, don't fuck with this one over here." They tell all their friends. The next time you come around. The crows are going to just caaaw! This motherfucker back. Don't trust him. It's amazing. So in conclusion, crows should not be called a murder, they should be called something smarter like a symposium of crows.


PAT: All right.




JORDAN MENDOZA: A really good job. That was great.


PAT: What a supportive enemy.


TRACY CLAYTON: I hate good sports. I'm gonna look like an asshole.


JORDAN MENDOZA: I think we're all winners here.


PAT: Okay.

PAT: Next up was Jordan Mendoza with the slime mold. He put up a slide of a Petri dish with this, like, yellow lightning bolt-y streak going across it.


JORDAN MENDOZA: Okay. You're probably wondering what is this? But guys, don't worry, I freaking looked it up. A slime mold is a brainless, single-celled, pulsating wad of yellow goo. I learned if you put a slime mold in an environment where there is a complex decision to make, for instance which director -- direction to choose to find a good food source, this super-organism can solve that problem relatively easily by spreading its cytoplasm out, advancing and retreating in response to what it's -- what it finds. So this is a super-organism composed of thousands of nuclei, and they will collectively decide to make a decision for the group. Humans on the other hand are not at all good at collectively finding a good food source.


JORDAN MENDOZA: Have you ever tried to order Seamless with another person? Not easy. What are we gonna do? Pizza, Korean, Chinese, sushi? My roommate and I always end up choosing diarrhea. There are three general types of slime mold. Plasmodial slime molds, cellular slime molds, and Gary Busey.


PAT: Jordan put up a picture of Gary Busey. If you don’t know what he looks like, Google him.


JORDAN MENDOZA: For those who don't know, the joke here is that Gary Busey looks and is like a slime mold. Plasmodial slime molds are masses of thousands of nuclei that move around by spreading out in a fractal pattern, learning the lay of the land and even solving mazes and mapping networks with incredible efficiency. How efficient? It took human engineers years to map out a Tokyo rail system. It took a slime mold just hours. I read that in an article titled "Watch This Slime Mold Dunk on Japanese Engineers." I'm just kidding. I made that article title up. No one wrote that. The second type is a cellular slime mold, and this spends most of its life as a single freewheeling amoeba, which sounds like a sitcom that just got greenlit on Fox. This quirky, freewheeling amoeba just got the consulting job of her dreams. But can she balance love, work and New York City? Check out All The Single-Celled Ladies starring Zooey Deschanel as the slime mold.




PAT: Then Jordan went on to explain how slime molds look out for each other in this amazing way.


JORDAN MENDOZA: When one amoeba runs out of food, something incredible happens. It starts emitting chemical pulses, assembling clusters of other amoeba into a larger super-organism. This is a process called chemotaxis, or if it's trying to save money chemoUberpool. This super-organism then releases spores to find more food and then dies. Chemotaxis shows that slime molds are altruistic beings. They'll sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the species. I on the other hand, will never die for the benefit of others. I won't even give my subway seat up to an elderly pregnant woman who is carrying a piece of furniture. Finally, the last category of slime mold is Gary Busey, an Oscar-nominated American actor who has appeared in over 150 films including Lethal Weapon, The Firm and Piranha 3DD. In conclusion, slime molds are very smart. Please vote for me because I'm Asian, and if you don't vote for me that's racist.


TRACY CLAYTON: I did not know we could do that, for the record. I had no idea. Wow!


PAT: Give it up for Jordan Mendoza and the slime mold. Okay. All right, judges. We'll do -- we'll do a couple minutes here. What -- what -- deliberating, asking questions. What -- what are your reactions to these two?


JAD: Wow!


PAT: Crow versus slime mold.


ROBERT: Like the scale -- like, that a something so small multiplied so many times could come to complicated and sophisticated conclusions is a pretty impressive accomplishment.




ROBERT: Each individual ...


TRACY CLAYTON: I don't know.


JORDAN MENDOZA: Yeah, it's -- I don't know. It's pretty cool. I don't know.


JAD: But -- but also, I was leaning in that direction, but just to sort of give the crow a fair shake, if a crow can see a person and then remember it and disseminate the reputation for five years ...


PAT: Again, two and a half years.


JAD: ... amongst the other crows, well, that that's some kind of crow language or something.


PAT: Wow. Very impressive.


ROBERT: Macy, do you have a crow feeling one way or the other?




ROBERT: She does.




JAD: What's she saying?


ROBERT: Well, she's saying that she's not sure that she knows that many molds. Oklahoma City is a sort of dry town, and they don't have a forest there. So she feels a little bit unequal to the challenge here, what with the unfamiliar ...




ROBERT: Oh. Well, she did study them once.


PAT: Do you speak dog, Robert?


ROBERT: I understand it. I can't speak it.


PAT: I see. [laughs] Okay, well that's ...


ROBERT: She is -- she is partial to Gary Busey, which ...


PAT: Okay.


ROBERT: ... has -- has confused her.


PAT: Well let’s vote. Why don't we go down the line? Jad, what do you choose?


JAD: Gosh. I think just on -- I think I’m gonna have to go with the slime mold.


PAT: Wow, after giving it up for crows. Okay, so Jad's slime mold. Robert?


ROBERT: You know I -- with great respect for crows that hate well, I agree, they can -- but I'm gonna go with the slime mold as well.


PAT: Okay.


ROBERT: And Macy?


PAT: Macy?




TRACY CLAYTON: Sounds like crow to me.


PAT: What do we have for Macy?




PAT: Crow.


ROBERT: So surprising! So surprising from an animal ...


PAT: Despite her love of Gary Busey, she voted for crow.


PAT: So the judges voted in favor of the slime mold, and after that we brought up our next set of contestants to defend a whole new pair of animals.


PAT: Okay. Let's get our next contestants up here. Laurel Braitman and Dan Engber. Give it up everybody!


PAT: Dan Engber is a writer for Slate and the New York Times Magazine. And Laurel Braitman is the author of the best-selling book Animal Madness, and a teacher at Stanford.


PAT: Laurel, what animal are you entering into the mix?


LAUREL BRAITMAN: Sperm whales.


PAT: The sperm whale.


ROBERT: Sperm whale.


PAT: Okay. Okay, good. And Dan, what will you be bringing to the table?


DAN ENGBER: The chicken.


PAT: The chicken. Okay.


LAUREL BRAITMAN: Zero contest.


ROBERT: Oh ...


JAD: I'm so interested in how this is gonna play out!


PAT: Okay, we'll start with Laurel. Take it away.


LAUREL BRAITMAN: Sperm whales are huge. The biggest toothed whales. But in a lot of ways, they're like us. They have big brains and really complex social lives, but unlike us they live in a matriarchal culture. They probably even have stronger social and emotional bonds than we do. Young males go off on their own to find a new pod, and then everyone else stays together for life. Sperm whales communicate a lot like us too, physically and with language. But they also have a third way and I think we should consider it like a sixth sense. Maybe you think about echolocation like boat sonar, like a ping goes out and then it bounces -- or the sound bounces off a thing in their environment and then it comes back, and giving -- gives that boat, like, a grainy shape of whatever that object is. And dolphin and whale sonar does this too, and so do bats. But animal sonar also comes back as a physical feeling. In the case of sperm whales, it's really loud too. They make the loudest sounds of any animal on earth, up to 230 decibels.


JAD: Whoa!


LAUREL BRAITMAN: I know. It's actually -- it's louder than standing next to a jet engine at take off. Our eardrums can rupture at 150 decibels, which is basically like a gun going off next to your head. Sperm whales make these click, creaking and buzzing sounds in their nasal passages, and then they amplify and direct them with this big fatty, waxy organ in their foreheads called the melon. And it's like -- I know it's a terrible word. They probably have another word for it that's better, but it's like a huge built-in megaphone in their head.


[AUDIO CLIP: Sperm whale clicks.]


LAUREL BRAITMAN: It's just like that, but way louder. Like, crazy loud. So loud that it would hurt us to be listening to it. And this echolocation is so powerful that they can track a squid up to a mile away. And their social messages probably travel just as far. So knowing what we know of their really complex social lives, their sixth sense likely comes with its own emotional experiences, too, but we can't name those because we don't know what those feelings are like. So I want you to try to imagine it, though. What would it be like to be, like, reading a book while suddenly finding out just by feeling it, that your ex-girlfriend is coming around the corner of an underwater shelf a half a mile away. Now, she broke up with you. Matriarchal culture.


LAUREL BRAITMAN: You've been so lonely, but now you know the signal is meant for you just because of how it feels when you pick it up. And not only that, but you have an immediate accurate picture of exactly what she looks like. Not just the shape of her, but the perfect curve of her jaw, her sexy 12-inch layer of blubber that you've missed so much. But also you can also immediately tell how much she cares about you too. And that's why she's coming back. Also, you've been hunting a giant squid this whole time. So sperm whales might have a particular emotion that goes along with experiences like these. And they maybe even have a different sense of self. In the mid-1980s, a neuropsychologist named Harry Jerison proposed that echo-located communications that are emotional in nature, so like grief or joy, might be experienced by whales and dolphins as more than shared information. They actually might come in as shared feelings, shared emotional experiences. Jerison thought that this might give rise to something called the communal self, meaning that whales and dolphins might not say "I," they might always be a "We." We are sad, we are sick.


LAUREL BRAITMAN: And there's some evidence for this. So like, in whale strandings for example, when a bunch of whales will come up to the shore and strand themselves and die, but when we actually do studies on the whales we find out that maybe only one or two in a hundred was actually sick. Something is going on here, and I think it may be "We sick."


JAD: Wow.


LAUREL BRAITMAN: So I don't want to end on that super sad note, guys. It also might be why ...


PAT: So sad!


LAUREL BRAITMAN: I know. I know. I'm gonna lose just because it's sad. Okay, I'm gonna tell you one really nice thing and then we're going to turn it over to the mystery -- mystery animal over here. It also might be why dolphins and whales, there's so many reports of them coming to the aid of swimmers who were struggling, or fending off sharks from somebody who really needs protection or help. Or even doing things like this, which I love. This is a case of sperm whales who adopted a deformed dolphin. So a dolphin with a spinal abnormality who they welcomed into their pod. So sperm whales, man. What looks like extreme empathy to us might just them be being themselves. Or maybe it's a new kind of intelligence, one that requires a kind of communal feeling as opposed to thoughts about other people's feelings. So, thank you.


PAT: Laurel Braitman. Sperm whale!


JAD: Right. Good!


PAT: Okay.


JAD: Well done.


PAT: Very good. All right. Next up, Dan Engber.


DAN ENGBER: Chickens.


PAT: With the chickens.


DAN ENGBER: Let me start with this. A chicken can beat a human in tic-tac-toe. A chicken almost always beats a human in tic-tac-toe. I learned this fact in high school when my friend Rob got obsessed with one particular tic-tac-toe-playing chicken named Willie who lived at the video arcade at Mott Street. And Willie beat Rob over and over and over again at tic-tac-toe. Willie wasn't unique. Birds like him were once a pretty common carnival attraction. Their popularity peaked in the early '80s when trained chickens were shipped around the country, rented out for $200 a day, or sold for several thousand dollars each. And these chickens were so good at tic-tac-toe that humans were getting demoralized. At least one distributor started having the birds lose on purpose every fifth game to make it seem more fair.


DAN ENGBER: Now it turned out this whole thing had started years earlier in the South at a place called the IQ Zoo in Hot Springs, Arkansas. There, a pair of scientists Marian and Keller Breeland had built a business out of training up strange animal behaviors. Their zoo was like a product showroom, a place to demo the ducks they'd taught to play piano, or rabbits that drove around in little fire trucks, or hamsters on trapeze. But the Breelands ...




DAN ENGBER: You don't have to be that smart to go on trapeze. The Breelands' most popular and enduring act was the Bird Brain, a chicken in a box which disappeared behind a screen to peck Os onto a game board. Chinatown Willie was one of those, or maybe someone else's knock off. In any case, I watched that chicken play a lot of tic-tac-toe. Peering over Rob shoulder, I tried to figure out the chicken's secret strategy. But then last week, really last week, I discovered that all those observations were for naught. As I got ready for tonight's talk, I stumbled across a copy of an old instruction manual which the Breelands would send out with their Bird Brain units. And according to that manual, the chicken in the box wasn't really playing tic-tac-toe at all. In fact, behind the screen there was nothing but a single light bulb and a switch. When the light went on, the chicken pecked and an O appeared somewhere on the board in a spot chosen by computer. I found this kind of devastating. Partly because I promised Pat a talk on the intelligence of chickens.


DAN ENGBER: But here's the reality. Chickens are kind of dumb. As we've seen, they're even dumb compared to other birds. They don't have funerals. You know, they're not -- or make tools like crows. They don't learn to speak like parrots. In fact, if a chicken has any special talent at all it's that when you chop off its head it can go on acting like a chicken for days or weeks or even months. But still, I think there's something amazing about Willie and the other bird brains. It's not that these chickens were smart enough to beat us at tic-tac-toe, because they weren't. It's that we humans were dumb enough to lose.




DAN ENGBER: I mean, tic-tac-toe is not a complicated game, actually. If you can think ahead just a bit, you ought to be able to play any round of tic-tac-toe to a draw even against a computer. And yet it seems we humans can't or won't succeed even at this very modest test of our intelligence. And I think that's useful to remember especially tonight, because this whole project to rank species according to their smarts takes it as a given that a gulf exists between the very dumbest and the very smartest animals. That the chicken and the chimpanzee or the sperm whale or the crow live on separate continents of cognition. But I call that vanity. That's what Willie taught us, that there we were standing in the same arcade befuddled by the same computer, each unable to succeed at the same simple game. We were joined together across several hundred million years of evolution by what we couldn't do. Judges, a vote for chicken is a vote for finding that common ground. It's a vote for unity and kinship. A vote for chickens is a vote for all of us. Thank you.


PAT: Dan Engber with the chicken.




PAT: Okay.




JAD: This is so ...


ROBERT: Yeah. This is dumb together or heartfelt together.


JAD: Yeah.


PAT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.


ROBERT: Continuum. Wow!


JAD: Why -- I -- I don't even know -- what are you -- which way are you leaning?


ROBERT: Well, I did not know that stuff about the sperm whales at all.


JAD: No.


ROBERT: I -- I should -- I actually played on Mott Street with the Chinatown chicken in the 1980s, so I probably should not -- and lost.


PAT: Of course.


ROBERT: But so, you know, I don't know whether the other judge is awake, but ...


PAT: At this point, Macy had curled up into a ball, kind of taking a back seat on judging.


ROBERT: This is like the Meryl Streep-ification. I mean, if we were better humans, we would have the kind of antenna and radar that a great actress would have, where you can just somehow project and return. You go to a movie, like, with her and you go, you know, every move she makes, like, touches you. Oh, I can't -- I can't. I am enthralled by this.




JAD: What's she saying?


ROBERT: Doesn't like Streep.




ROBERT: Oh, because she's a Broadway star herself.


ROBERT: She’s feeling Streep right now.


JAD: Can I -- can I ask a fussy question about the -- about the sperm whale?




JAD: Is -- isn't all emotion somehow -- it's a physical ...




JAD: Physical, right?


LAUREL BRAITMAN: Yeah, we have a learning system, too.


JAD: So is it a question of degrees? That somehow they are experiencing that much -- or is it an entirely different kind of intelligence, would you think?


LAUREL BRAITMAN: I think that they have another way of accessing their emotional life than we do. So they have everything we have, right? Like, their friend can go up and clap them on the back or give them a sperm whale hug or whatever, right? Like, they still have that, and they also have language. But then they have this other thing which to me, just because I avoid my inbox or whatever, it feels like some form of email, right? Like, you send it at a great distance, but it's emotional and you pick it up with your face.


JAD: I -- you know what? I think I gotta -- my heart goes sperm whale. As a political platform, I vote chicken. But as -- my heart says I gotta go for the sperm whale.


PAT: So you vote sperm whale, Jad?


ROBERT: I go sperm.


PAT: Sperm whale two.




PAT: That's three. A sweep. Wow, okay! Tough break, Dan.


PAT: So at this point, the first round was finished. The judges had weighed in on some pretty compelling cases for the crow, the slime mold, the sperm whale and the chicken. Next up, we had another round of competition. Same basic idea. We asked our four contestants to bring a smart animal to the table to make a case for, but this time we threw a couple curveballs at them. That, and the final crowning of the world's smartest animal after a quick break.


[NAN: This Nan DeRosa from Amsterdam. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]


PAT: So in part one of our competition, we heard arguments for the intelligence of the crow, the slime mold, the sperm whale, and the chicken. And in part two, we decided to raise the stakes a little, give our competitors a couple more challenges.


PAT: The first challenge is that they are now going to have to compete with their nemesis from the first round. So we're gonna team them up and we're gonna have a round of two-on-two round. And the other challenge we gave them is we noticed that we weren't really paying that much attention to the furry mammals. I think a lot of us imagine that we may be among the smartest animals in the -- in the animal kingdom. And some of us won't, yeah. And so -- but we decided let's do some furry mammals, but -- but the challenge was not to do any of the usual suspects. So no humans, of course. No chimpanzees, no elephants, no dogs. Sorry, Macy. Come up with an unexpectedly smart furry mammal with your -- with your new former enemy teammate.


PAT: First up were Dan and Laurel, who had absolutely no trouble at all agreeing on a smart furry mammal.


DAN ENGBER: It was obviously the raccoon.


PAT: It was obviously the raccoon? Why?


LAUREL BRAITMAN: O.G. of the animal kingdom. Been showing us how to live in cities for a really long time.


DAN ENGBER: Yeah, there was no other choice. I don't even -- why are we talking about this?


PAT: I know it's a no-brainer. Alright, take it away.


DAN ENGBER: In the fall of 1906 ...


LAUREL BRAITMAN: We're trying to win, Dan.


DAN ENGBER: In the fall of 1906, this headline "Smart Raccoons" was picked up by several major newspapers. The column underneath described a Mr. and Mrs. Golepard who'd been traveling from town to town in a double-decker covered wagon beneath a family of trained raccoons that worked for them as chimney sweeps. It was not the only story of its kind. In those years, raccoons were often touted by reporters for their high intelligence or their sagacity or their skill at making mischief. This is the odd and tragic story of how we came to understand briefly a century ago, that raccoons were among the very shrewdest animals of all. And then we forgot.


DAN ENGBER: The link between an animal’s slipperiness and its smarts was once well established among scientists. At Columbia University, Edward Thorndike had been testing the intelligence of cats and dogs by locking them in boxes. He’d seal the box with latches, bolts or string pulleys and leave a snack outside as motivation. This was Houdini in the lab. An escape room, but for animals. Then in 1907, a psychologist in Oklahoma named Lawrence Wistor Cole thought to put raccoons through those same puzzle boxes to learn, as he put it, their proper place in the scale of mammalian intelligence. And he found some amazing things. His raccoons, Tom, Jim, Jack and Dolly, would at times break free of the puzzle box and then ignore the food reward. It was as if they’d gone through the exercise, not in service of their hunger as other animals might do but to satisfy an inner curiosity. Cole also found that his raccoons, unlike cats, could learn to escape a given box just by watching humans do it. And based on this and other work, a soft consensus came together in psychology that raccoons were in fact quite high on the scale of mammalian intelligence, much higher than a cat or a dog at any rate, and maybe even on a par with primates. But alas, this whole idea was soon to be challenged and erased. In the same year Cole published his research, the president, Teddy Roosevelt lashed out against the tendency of nature writers to ascribe human-like abilities to raccoons and other animals. The president, who was an avid outdoorsman, called this fake news.




DAN ENGBER: Within a few years, some of Cole’s most impressive findings with raccoons were challenged by his peers. Even scientists who believed in Cole’s research would find it hard to follow up. For one thing, the raccoons they meant to study kept escaping. And a new paradigm was spreading through psychology, one that had little time for musings on a raccoon’s imagination or its curiosity or its loneliness. In place of Tom and Jim and Jack and Dolly there were rats. Nameless rats. So raccoons vanished from the lab and then as cities grew, they vanished from our lives. Out of sight, and for awhile out of mind.


LAUREL BRAITMAN: Dun dun dun. But, turns out as people moved out of the country and into the cities the raccoons followed us. And our urban spaces aren't just the perfect place for raccoons to demonstrate their intelligence, but I argue that they are also making them even smarter. Today though, the people that know the most about urban raccoons are the people whose job it is to get them out of our urban spaces. Like, Mr. Raccoon, aka Junio Costa, the number one no-kill humane raccoon trapper of the California Bay Area. He told me that the animals are bold and curious and they eat pretty much everything. Raccoons move into our attics and our crawl spaces. They study us. They use their tiny, sensitive hands to manipulate locks and latches, or pry out loose nails. They gnaw things open and then they take running leaps also to knock things over. A raccoon will work on a problem like lifting up a garage door or prying open a window or prying a vent cover off of a basement for hours until they figure it out. Sometimes they'll come back, like, night after night to work on the problem until they solve it. And once they do, they keep coming back.


LAUREL BRAITMAN: Mr. Raccoon told me that once he got a call every night from the same neighborhood for, like, two weeks because one ambitious raccoon figured out they were all tract homes, and so what would work to get into one of these tract houses would work in the entire neighborhood. So she just went house to house to house to house. So raccoons are really one of the only animal species to fare better as humans spread all over the planet. Not only that, but we are each problems for each other. They try to outsmart us, we try to outsmart them. It's unclear to me which of us is getting more intelligent faster.


PAT: All right give it up for the raccoon team!


PAT: Next up were Tracy Clayton and Jordan Mendoza.


PAT: Let's bring back Tracy Clayton and Jordan Mendoza!


PAT: And agreeing on an animal was a little bit harder than they expected.


TRACY CLAYTON: So here's the thing.


PAT: Okay, so what did you end up ...


TRACY CLAYTON: We've decided on a type of mammal.


PAT: A type of mammal?


TRACY CLAYTON: The marsupial.




PAT: Oh, okay.


TRACY CLAYTON: We have our own individual marsupials.


PAT: Tracy kicked it off for team marsupial with this adorable little creature called the quokka, which looks sort of like a chubby squirrel with these teddy bear eyes and little black gloves.


TRACY CLAYTON: Are we ready?


JORDAN MENDOZA: I think it’s time.


TRACY CLAYTON: Literally if you're -- if you have a hat hold on to it. If you're sitting in a chair, hold on to the -- hold on to your butts. Sam Jackson. I thought that the response would be, "Okay." So this, ladies and gentlemen, not to oversell it, is the most amazing animal fact you will ever hear in your life. Are you ready? Judges, are you ready? Macy? She's into it. Okay. Here's why the quokka is the smartest animal. Serious business. When approached by the predator ...


PAT: Oh, man!


TRACY CLAYTON: We're gonna get through this as a family, I swear. Okay, when approached by a predator, a parent quokka -- I don't know if it's the dad, the mom, the -- you know, pronouns. I don't know their lives. Approached by a predator, if a parent is with their child, they will throw the child at the predator to distract it while it runs away. So I need to describe this image for the people who cannot see it.


PAT: Where did you get this?


PAT: So at this point, Tracy had an illustration up on the screen of a mom tossing a baby into a basketball hoop.


TRACY CLAYTON: Like a -- like she's at the free throw line. That's what quokkas do, you know? And I think that this is really smart, because you could make another one. You could make two or three, you know? If the both of y'all die because -- because you're that attached to your child, then what happens to your genetic line? It doesn't get passed on, right? This way quokka was like, "Oh, shit. I like Emily, but I can make another -- I can make Emily the second. Emily Two." Pyarm, pyarm. And that's that. The quokka goes on to live another day. The quokka goes on to survive longer than anyone else will. Thank you. It's your turn if you still wanna go.


JORDAN MENDOZA: It's very funny. I am scared.


PAT: And Jordan decided to fight for kind of a weird choice.


JORDAN MENDOZA: So, oh boy. So this is supposed to be a presentation about, like, what the smartest animal is. And a long time ago I was like, yeah, I'm gonna do koalas. But then I looked it up, and apparently koalas are famously stupid.




JORDAN MENDOZA: Here's how dumb koalas are. Their brains only take two percent of their body mass, which is apparently one of the smallest brain-to-body mass ratios of any mammal. Koala's brains are also super smooth, which is bad because the more folds your brain has, the smarter you are. The human brain is like Marie Kondo. Lots of folding. Shout out to my Kondoheads out there. Spark and joy. You know who you are.


TRACY CLAYTON: That guy. He's the guy.


JORDAN MENDOZA: Honestly, I love her so much. Guys, koalas are so dumb, they even sound dumb. Listen to this.


[CLIP, koala crying]




JORDAN MENDOZA: Perhaps koalas aren't conventionally intelligent. Just like how choosing koalas for this presentation wasn't conventionally intelligent.


TRACY CLAYTON: It was not. It was not.


JORDAN MENDOZA: But I propose that we rethink intelligence, partly because I'm stuck with this animal, but mostly because I believe that this animal is in many ways smarter than us. Perhaps koalas are like how my mom describes me, "smart in their own special way." Let's compare koalas and humans to see who looks smart by comparison. This is a koala’s daily schedule: a koala sleeps 20 hours a day, while the remaining four hours they spend eating and mating. Incredible. Imagine only being awake for the amount of hours you need to eat and have sex. I mean, I'm not a huge fan of sex because I'm quote-unquote "awful" at it. But boy, do I love eating. The human schedule on the other hand is horrendous. We sleep on average 6.8 hours a night. We wake from our nightmares, then spend 10 hours reading emails and worrying, five hours on a conference call, and two hours eating dinner out of a big bowl while watching Billions and hoping to God that Paul Giamatti's voice can lull us to sleep again. In conclusion, koalas have optimized themselves for life's greatest gifts: eating, having sex -- for those who enjoy that kind of thing -- and sleeping without the need to listen to Paul Giamatti's voice. And that's smart. Now who sounds stupid? Still koalas.


[CLIP, koala crying]


JORDAN MENDOZA: Whoo! I realized I clapped with everyone else, but you know what? I am proud of myself.


TRACY CLAYTON: Do you think a koala would have done that?


JORDAN MENDOZA: Yeah, it's a real koala move.


PAT: Wow, okay. So we've heard from both pairs, raccoons and marsupials-slash-quokka and dumb-slash-smart koala.




PAT: So after that ...


PAT: Let's proceed with you guys.


PAT: It was time for the final judging.


PAT: That was a lot of ...


JAD: There's a lot to take in there. A lot of different arguments were put forward. I think I got to give this to the marsupial duet.


PAT: Oooh! All right, all right!


TRACY CLAYTON: See me after the show. This was good!


JAD: Mr. Krulwich?


PAT: Oh, boy.


ROBERT: Well, I was -- I was -- I was impressed by the boldness of the chicken -- of the ...


PAT: But before the judges even had a chance to all weigh in ...


TRACY CLAYTON: Objection! Objection!


PAT: Oh, what is this? What's happening here? Laurel Braitman has walked a giant bone across the stage and given it to Macy the dog judge.


PAT: A pretty serious incident of bribery went down.


TRACY CLAYTON: This is, like, witness tampering or something. What do you call it? Macy, don’t you do it.


PAT: So to keep things fair, we decided to just throw the whole thing over to the audience. To vote with their applause for their take on the smartest animal of the evening. So just to recap, the contenders were the crow, the slime mold, the sperm whale, the chicken, the raccoon, and the marsupials. And the winner according to the audience was ...


PAT: I think it's ...


JAD: I think it's pretty clear.


PAT: ... who the winner is, right?


JAD: I think it's ...


PAT: I'd ask to cue up a drumroll. But ...


JAD: Yeah.


PAT: Drum roll, please. Ah, we're gonna do it here. I think the winner of the contest, the smartest animal in the world is the sperm whale. The crown goes to Laurel Braitman! We had a prize somewhere. I don't know who out here from our team has it. There's a prize. We had -- we had planned to give a goldfish to the winner. And instead, we have a red fish, a beta fish for -- for our winner Laurel Braitman. One more time for Laurel Braitman winning our competition!




PAT: She -- she flew here from California with the -- with the leg of an animal, and now she's flying back with a small fish.


TRACY CLAYTON: So do we not care that she attempted to bribe the judge? We just don't -- we just don't care about that, right?


PAT: I guess we're -- the people have spoken.


LAUREL BRAITMAN: The judge didn't want it, so it didn't work.


TRACY CLAYTON: Okay. All right.


PAT: Okay, that's -- that's our show everyone. Thank you. Thank you to everyone. Please give it up. I have some thank-yous. Thank you to our contributors, Dan Engber, Laurel Braitman, Tracy Clayton and Jordan Mendoza. Take a bow. Thanks to our judges, Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, Macy, and Bill Berloni her assistant.




PAT: Thank you to the Radiolab staff who put this night together: Rachael Cusick, Nora Keller, Suzie Lechtenberg and the whole team here at the Greene Space. Tonight's show and all our reporting on the intelligence series that's starting to come out next Thursday has been supported by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science. We're very grateful to Simons. And additional support for Radiolab is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. And most of all, thank you all for coming out. We can't do this without you. Thank you for coming in the rain, and have a great night.


[SPIKE: Hi, this is Spike calling from New York, New York. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Nora Keller, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Ruth Samuel, Imani Leonard, Neel Dhanesha, Sarah Sandbach and Malissa O'Donnell. Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.]