Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2570

by Andrew Boyd

Today, a story in two parts. The University of Houstonís College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The woodpecker finch, found in the Galapagos Islands, isnít actually a woodpecker. True woodpeckers peck to loosen bark on a tree, then use their long tongues to search for grubs. Woodpecker finchesí tongues are too short for that. So they use a cactus spine to pry grubs from the bark. When the grub can be reached, they set the spine down, consume the grub, then pick the spine up and search for more grubs.

woodpecker finch picture

The woodpecker finch is using a tool, and there are many such examples in the animal world. Chimpanzees use twigs to fish for termites. Sea otters use rocks to crack open shellfish while contentedly floating on their backs. Elephants use sticks to scratch an itch.

chimpanzee fishing for termites picture

Animal ingenuity doesnít stop with tools. Chimpanzees have been taught to communicate with sign language. Parrots have an extraordinary ability for precisely recreating sounds. Dolphins teach their children how to protect their noses with sponge when foraging for food. Some border collies have learned to understand hundreds of words. Even the lowly veined octopus has been observed manipulating broken coconut shells to build a home.

Thereís no denying that animals can be ingenious. And theyíre ingenious in ways that elude the most complicated machines. Computers can do impressive things, but only because of human instruction.

And this brings us to the second part of our story. Much as I marvel at animal ingenuity, what truly amazes me is human ingenuity. It far, far surpasses that of than any other animal. Think about it. Every day we deal with tasks so complex no animal could hope to accomplish them. Driving to work. Balancing a checkbook. Understanding the evening news. All routine activities.

The storyís even more amazing when we consider the less routine. We make involved plans that span our entire lifetimes. We enjoy intricate music. Our doctors fight disease. Our teachers pass down centuries of accumulated knowledge. Our capacity to understand mathematics is almost unimaginable, and our comprehension of the physical universe through the language of mathematics leaves me in awe. Animals canít so much as understand the meaning of the number 100.

Weighed down with bringing home a paycheck or caring for our families, itís easy to forget how remarkable we are. Humans are the most ingenious creatures ever to walk the earth. That doesnít mean we should place ourselves on a pedestal. Quite the opposite. Our capabilities carry with them special responsibilities. But it is worth stopping and celebrating our uniquely human ingenuity.

Iím Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where weíre interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

H. Coupin and J Lea. The Wonders of Animal Ingenuity. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1910.

L. Kosseff. Untitled. From the Tufts University Web site: http://www.pigeon.psy.tufts.edu/psych26/birds.htm. Accessed January 12, 2010.

The picture of the woodpecker finch is taken from the Tufts University web site: http://www.pigeon.psy.tufts.edu/psych26/images/thefinch.jpg. Accessed January 12, 2010.

The chimpanzee pictures are taken from Wikimedia Commons.

chimpanzee typing picture

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.