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Discovery
Jan 18, 2024

The Surprises of Diverse Intelligences with Frans de Waal, Paco Calvo, Michael Levin, Marcelo Magnasco, Diana Reiss & Shumpei Sogawa (video)

Scientists share findings from recent research about animal intelligence, and offer insight into new ways of framing how we think about plant and cellular intelligences.

By Templeton Staff

Intelligence is present in so much of the universe, spanning from particles to organisms.

It's found in surprising places, including the inorganic world. In this video, scientists share findings from recent research about animal intelligence, and offer insight into new ways of framing how we think about plant and cellular intelligences.

"Animals are doing much more than we could ever imagine," says Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist who has found that bottlenose dolphins and Asian elephants can recognize themselves in the mirror. Animals display remarkable intelligence, from complex memory in birds to echolocation in bats. Researchers have long been tracking neural correlates of cognitive abilities and consciousness of animals. Paco Calvo, a cognitive scientist specializing in "the philosophy of plant behavior and signaling" at the University of Murcia in Spain, says the same kinds of study can also be applied to plant life and its flexibility in behavior. "You don't need neural tissue to speak of information flow and apply cognitive science." In the video, he emphasizes "we don't quite yet 'get' how smart plants are. It has to do with both their intelligence and our lack of skills in appreciating and understanding their smarts."

Michael Levin, a developmental and synthetic biologist whose work covers a wide range of topics from the bioelectric properties of cells to the creation of living robots in amphibian eggs, describes Diverse Intelligences as a multi-disciplinary field of research that seeks to understand what's common to all intelligence. He envisions the concept of intelligences as a spectrum or continuum of cognitive systems, encompassing everything from simple active matter to humans and beyond. Intelligence in any given system whether it's "evolved or engineered," isn't decided by "philosophical debates about how things have to be, but by making hypotheses and doing experiments," he says. Framing intelligences this way will help develop "a science of being able to recognize, predict, interact with, and even create multiscale cognitive systems. I hope that these ideas can be pushed into very practical advances for improving embodied existence."

Acknowledging and learning more about unconventional intelligences can be seen as a path to enable and advance flourishing — for humans, the planet, and all beings.  Learning from minds other than our own can inspire technological innovations and solutions that mimic or expand on nature's capabilities. Harnessing collective cellular intelligence may lead to medical breakthroughs, and there's much that may be learned about sustainable farming from observing plant behaviors. Beyond these practicalities, shifting the focus from viewing non-human intelligences as resources to accepting them as agents holds the potential for positive impacts on how we live, interact with the world, and care for our environment. "Once we start talking about the intelligence and the emotions of animals, and accept that they have lives that are sometimes quite complex, we have to treat them better than we do," says primatologist and ethologist, Frans de Waal. Of plants and other intelligences, Calvo notes, "the the better they do, the better we will do."

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To learn more, watch the video with the above player.

You'll find out:

  • What happens when two monkeys are "paid" with different foods unequally, from Frans de Waal
  • What cleaner fish do when they see their mirror reflections, from Shumpei Sogawa
  • If octopuses can solve puzzles and manipulate their environments, from Diana Reiss and Marcelo Magnaso

Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences. Find out more here.

Researchers featured in the video:

Paco Calvo, PhD, Professor of Philosophy of Science & Director, Minimal Intelligence Lab (MINT Lab), University of Murcia

Frans de Waal, PhD, C. H. Candler Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology & Director, Living Links Center, Emory University

Michael Levin, PhD, Vannevar Bush Distinguished Professor of Biology & Director, The Allen Discovery Center, Tufts University

Marcelo Magnasco, PhD, Professor & Head of Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience, The Rockefeller University

Diana Reiss, PhD, Professor of Psychology & Director, Animal Behavior and Conservation Graduate programHunter College, CUNY

Shumpei Sogawa, PhD, Professor of Animal Psychology, Osaka Metropolitan University


Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” videos by journalist and senior media executive Richard Sergay feature human stories and critical perspectives on breakthroughs about the universe’s big questions. The inspiring narratives and observations in these award-winning videos portray the individual and societal impacts of the projects that bring to life TWCF-supported research.