Monday, 22 August 2011

Rat intelligence: A Rodent Road to Knowledge

Where there is a possibility, there is a rat. Life can find many ways to spread, from space bacteria to billions of insects. This is a strategy of numbers. Bacteria are simple, so simple that they don’t need strictly a planet to survive. Insects are many, so many that the swarm intelligence of an organized bunch of them, an anthill or a beehive, is by far more than the sum of the individuals. But rats are different. They are mammals. In mammals, individuals count.
Rats are cognitively simpler than us, but their intelligence is quite sophisticated in problem solving (comparing to bacteria and insects. Well, to individual insects…An anthill is pretty good compared to ourselves). Rats are so epistemically hot, that I want to found our best euristic strategy with them.
Every sentient being has a cognition, so even an amoeba is endowed with a minimum degree of intelligence. An ant a bit more. Dolphins, a huge lot more. Humans? We hit the zillion swankiest score in town. Rats: they are ok.

It’s true that rats are many, but much lesser than the billions of insects. Many rodents can behave like a swarm, but a single rat is able to earn his living alone. What do they do?
They investigate. They are curious. They check their own environment. Constantly. They don’t particularly like to die, but they go the closest as it is possible to elements in their habitat. They try, they push their cognitive knowledge to the limit, to the maximum limit allowed for a living being: they push it to the very limit of their own existence. They rarely sit in their comfort zone, especially because to one extent they are comfortable in extreme situation, to other because their curiosity is restless. The cognitive life of our rodent friend consists in checking his environment, in re-adjusting constantly the cognitive map of his world. The world is born every new day for an investigative rat, because he questions the new limits. Nothing is the same of yesterday.
What are rats doing? They are understanding. This is old, pure, Hegelian understanding. A bit mixed up with the disgrace of the sewage, but Idealism is materialistic at its conceptual heart.
Hang on a minute, I sensed it from the beginning, but I was suspecting “a coupe de theatre”, a paradox, a metaphor. Where is it? From rat intelligence to a hyper-sophisticated German “verstehen”? Nothing in between???

I’m afraid not. I’ve been surprised by the epistemic resilience of rodents and I start to ask to myself, to which extent our understanding was similar to them. Then I realized that the question needed to be rephrased: to which they are not similar! What we have more? Sure, we have a very complex technology to deal with a semiotic environment. Powerful, marvelous, gigastic. But we have a much bigger brain. And we started 35 000 years ago to manufacture environment able to shape our capacity of manipulating the symbolism of our cognition. This is quite a thing, I don’t deny it. But in essence, the cognitive agents that are travelling in our semiotic sewages, the many of them, are not that dissimilar to the rats exploring their environment. “We are intentionally building our own environment, they are more parasitically inhibiting it. We are intentionally exploring and shaping future configuration of this environment, they are locked in a constant present search ”. When you start to use intentionality to make a difference, in my experience it’s a good sign that there is no difference.

Rats are "commensals" of our societies: kind of parasites, but not (directly) harmful. Basically a commensal is living on the leftover of his guest. Like a rat! Well, you can see our minds as commensals of the semiotic production of all the human brains. A brain is polluting the environment with information, that a mind picks up and cognitively digest as conscious artifacts (that's proper food for thought). Don't think that there is a big, underlying difference between our minds and rats: true we are associated more closely with our brains, but don't expect too much from ownership or responsibility. I know our society has a great esteem for both, but I'm not so sure about brain ownership or mind responsibility. It's a rethoric that is working (badly) in our times.

In comparison to rats, our brains are not less locked in the constant present of our mind horizon. I can easily project myself in the future and I can do that also with products and procedures of my intelligence. But my cognitive life is still anchored in the present search that is my self-conscious awareness of being here. The exploration of our own limits is pretty much the same corner-turning and switch-actions of lab mice. We are forced by our own cognition to engage in epistemic activities: our need to know is very much rodent-like.

I’m not suggesting that we are the guinea pigs of a superior intelligence (though, it could be possible). But simply that we are more similar to rats than we think. At the end of day the only thing I wouldn’t expect from a mouse in a lab, would be to stop, to sit down and bursting in to a big laugh, patting his lap with his paw. This is the difference between human and rat intelligence, but I rarely see it every day in humans as well.

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