Surprises of Diverse Intelligences - Stories of Impact Podcast Episode - TWCF grantees Diana Reiss and Marcelo Magnasco are studying octopus cognition.
May 31, 2024

Diverse Intelligences Surprises with Paco Calvo, Marcelo Magnasco & Diana Reiss (podcast)

What cutting-edge research into non-human behavior and cognition can tell us about ourselves 

By Templeton Staff

“Our [human] intelligence is but one type of intelligence — not a privileged one, simply another one.”

Dr. Paco Calvo, Dir. MINT Lab, University of Murcia, Spain

Years of studying plants and octopuses has inspired two research teams to view intelligence as horizontal and inclusive, rather than a hierarchy with humans at the top.

In this Stories of Impact podcast episode, Dr. Paco Calvo, and the team of Dr. Marcelo Magnasco and Dr. Diana Reiss share how this approach can foster a flourishing future.


Key Takeaways:

Plants May Be More Intelligent Than We Think

Plants are often considered to be passive organisms, yet research has shown they have remarkable abilities to sense, respond, and adapt to their environments. Dr. Paco Calvo is a cognitive scientist and professor of philosophy of science at the University of Murcia, Spain. There, he leads an interdisciplinary team of scientists at the Minimal Intelligence Lab (MINT), the world’s first laboratory studying the philosophy of plant signaling and behavior. 

MINT conducts a wide range of research, from behavioral studies with climbing beans and pea plants to fundamental questions at the intersection of the biological and cognitive sciences, such as what are the minimal requirements for conscious experience or intelligence?

Early in his career Calvo recognized that assuming humans were at the top of a vertical intelligence hierarchy is an outdated and limiting way of thinking. “If there is a good reason to track neural correlates of cognitive abilities and consciousness in the case of animals, the same applies in the case of plants,” he says. “Instead of having neural tissue, plants have their own tissue,” says Calvo, and that “vascular system is an information processing network.”

Although plants don’t have brains or bodies that move around like humans, many examples of not only communication, but intelligent manipulation, such as planning ahead, can be seen in plants.

Plants modify their behaviors depending on who or what is present, both above and below ground. They can release volatiles to attract natural predators of the species feeding on them or may starve themselves to deter predators. They can differentiate between vibrations caused by a predatory threat and those from non-threatening sources like wind. Additionally, they can communicate stress to other nearby plants, signaling them to conserve energy in anticipation of adverse conditions.

“Any organism whatsoever, from unicellulars to us, will need to integrate many sources of information, both from the external world and from the internal world,” says Calvo. “They've got to integrate all these informational channels in order to deliver one single global adaptive response. That response is adaptive, proactive, flexible, sophisticated, complex, and anticipatory. When you find those patterns, then we are talking intelligence.”

What might be the ethical implications for humans in recognizing plant intelligence? Dr. Calvo hopes that research like his will encourage people to view the relationship between plants and humans as symbiotic. By acknowledging plants as agents, or intelligent beings with their own needs rather than mere objects, he believes humanity may find solutions to the environmental crisis we've caused.

“Our [human] intelligence is but one type of intelligence — not a privileged one, simply another one, a different one,” says Calvo. 

“That's the power of science... Getting people to change their views, perceptions, and actions towards other animals on the planet and our environment.”

Dr. Diana Reiss, Dir. Animal Behavior & Conservation Graduate Program, Hunter College
The Intelligence of Octopuses

Next the discussion turns to the intelligence of octopuses, and what might be learned by what neuroscientist Dr. Marcelo Magnasco describes as “separating anthropocentrism from intelligence.” 

Dr. Marcelo Magnasco is a biophysicist professor and head of the Laboratory of Integrated Neuroscience at Rockefeller University. He works closely with Dr. Diana Reiss, professor of psychology at Hunter College, CUNY. She’s the director of the Animal Behavior and Conservation Graduate program there, and is a co-founder of Interspecies Internet, a global multidisciplinary think-tank working to accelerate understanding of interspecies communication.

For this podcast episode, they discuss their joint research on the behavior of the octopus. 

The team is studying octopus intelligence to understand how their problem-solving abilities work. Octopuses, despite being largely solitary and having short lifespans, display remarkable cognitive abilities, solving complex puzzles and demonstrating curiosity. This contrasts with the prevailing scientific views that see animal intelligence as closely tied to social structures and communities. 

The project features an interactive wall that octopuses can explore to see how they use their arms and integrate sensory cues (like visual and touch sensations) to solve problems. The research team is also looking at how octopuses manipulate objects to see if they can build shelters.

The team chose to study the octopus, Magnasco explains, because octopuses are “literally as close as you can be to the antipodes of human beings in both phylogeny and behavior." They're "very diverse from us in every aspect of its lifestyle.” He emphasizes that “separating anthropocentrism from intelligence is extremely important. Because we want to know what intelligence is in its absolute form that's not just embodied in us.” 

Reiss echoes this idea, adding that research like theirs shines light on “the power of appropriate selection, be it in a human, a non-human animal, or a machine.” She says, “I really like that because it's free from biases about being human… One of the things that's always a challenge for me is thinking, we tend to recognize and see what we do in other animals. But what if they're doing something so different that we would be blind and deaf to those things? It's humbling to think of. And also quite wonderful.”

As humanity faces challenges with climate change and environmental changes, Reiss emphasizes the importance of sharing research progress and results from the study of diverse intelligences. "That's the power of science, of getting our scientific findings out to the public, to politicians — really engaging in 'translational science.' Getting people to change their views, perceptions, and actions towards other animals on the planet and our environment."

Built upon the award-winning video series of the same name, Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” podcast features stories of new scientific research on human flourishing that translate discoveries into practical tools. Bringing a mix of curiosity, compassion, and creativity, journalist Richard Sergay and producer Tavia Gilbert shine a spotlight on the human impact at the heart of cutting-edge social and scientific research projects supported by TWCF.