No, A Study Did Not Conclude Dogs Are Smarter Than Cats

“Study finds dogs are more than twice as smart as cats,” the clickbait headline reads:

A study gives dog owners solid scientific evidence that dogs really are smarter than cats.

A study led by Vanderbilt University counted for the first time the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex of the brains of cats and dogs and found that dogs have more than twice as many neurons as cats.

The research found that dogs have about 530 million cortical neurons while cats have about 250 million. These neurons are the brain cells associated with thinking, planning and complex behavior, which are all considered hallmarks of intelligence.
That’s from a story published Aug. 30 on Local12.com, the website of a Cincinatti-area news station.
So what’s wrong with the story?
  • It’s dishonest: The study was conducted in 2017, but the Local12 story presents it as news in August of 2019.
  • It quotes the study’s lead author, giving the impression a reporter from Local12 spoke to her. That did not happen. The quotes were copied and pasted from the press release that originally announced the study two years ago.
  • It misinterprets the study’s results: Neither neuron count nor brain size — relative or absolute — are reliable indicators of intelligence.
This is what passes for news in 2019: Old, recycled content presented as new information, slapped together by a web producer who didn’t bother to read more than the study’s abstract.
It’s all about traffic and designing pieces of content ready-made for Facebook feeds.
But what about the central claim, that the number of neurons in an animal’s brain correlates to intelligence?
If that were true, we’d be living on a planet dominated not by humans, but by elephants: Earth’s largest terrestrial animal has some 260 billion neurons compared to an average of 100 billion for humans.
Elephants
“Hear that, son? We have more neurons than humans!”
Research suggests the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex, as opposed to the entire brain, may be a better indicator of intelligence. Indeed, that’s what the study focuses on. The cerebral cortex is associated with higher cognitive functions. As you’d expect, humans have unusually high neuron counts in that region of the brain.
But by that measurement, humans aren’t at the top either.
If neuron density in the cerebral cortex was the primary indicator of intelligence, the long-finned pilot whale would reign supreme, and other types of whales and dolphins would rival humans.
Not only do pilot whales have twice as many cortical neurons as humans, their brains have much more surface area, which scientists once believed corresponded to intelligence.
Pilot Whales
“Actually we are the Earth’s smartest creatures according to cortical neuron count. Suck it!”
So if we’re keeping score, intelligence is not determined by:
  • The number of neurons in the brain
  • The number of neurons in the cerebral cortex
  • Brain size
  • Brain size relative to body mass
  • Brain surface area
  • Brain “folds”
At one time or another, each of those things was thought of as the way to measure smarts. So if none of those things are true markers of intelligence, what is?
That’s the million-dollar question. We don’t have an answer, which is why scientists conduct this kind of research in the first place.
Contrary to what the article claims, cortical neuron count does not provide “solid scientific evidence that dogs really are smarter than cats.”
But that doesn’t make for a clickable, shareable headline, does it?
In truth, we can’t even define what “more intelligent” really means because each species sees the world differently, and has different priorities to enable it to survive and thrive.
When we measure intelligence, we measure it on a human scale, according to how we humans see the world. That’s hardly an impartial way of evaluating the intelligence of animals with much different needs and ways of seeing the world, and it doesn’t yield many useful insights.
Keeping that in mind is particularly important when it comes to studying cats, who have their own agendas and priorities. Dogs are eager to please and obedient. Cats only listen when it suits them.
That doesn’t mean one is smarter than the other, it simply means they’re different

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s