Smart and Spineless by Ann Downer Introduces Intelligence

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Cover for Smart and Spineless by Ann DownerSmart and Spineless: Exploring Invertebrate Intelligence by Ann Downer serves as an introduction not just to invertebrate intelligence, but to the concept of intelligent itself. Throughout the book, Downer offers several varieties of intelligence: learning through trial and error, for example, or being able to solve problems, or showing signs of planning, playing, and so on. Also, she makes it clear that not all forms need to be present for an animal to be deemed “intelligent.” At other points, in the book Downer suggests intelligence may be sited somewhere other than the brain. For example, she locates it in the eyes, for some spiders and talks of colony-based collective intelligence for wasps and bees. Overall, book ends up askin the question “How are we defining intelligence?” as much as “Are these creatures intelligent?”

Smart and Spineless is divided into short chapters, each covering one particular invertebrate—worms, spiders, octopuses, bees, and wasps among them. Each chapter gives a short summary of what the creature is, including what family it is in, what its basic structure is, and what type of intelligence it displays. There are mentions of historic and ongoing studies of these animals, and an analysis of what it is that the animal does that displays intelligence.

While the basic topics covered are, or can be—mind-bogglingly complex, Downer keeps her sentences short and her summaries at the basic level, allowing this to serve as an introduction to intelligence and its varying displays. Accompanying the text are vivid photographs, often close-ups, of the subjects. There are separate blocks of text in color that provide additional information and noteworthy developments. The section on collective intelligence, for example, includes experiments on making small robots that act collectively, and the section on worms has more detail about Darwin’s studies.

The book is listed for teens and young adult, and I would place its intended audience at the younger end of the scale—more middle grade than high school. As such, Smart and Spineless is a solid introduction to the world of animal intelligence.

Smart and Spineless comes out September 1, 2015. Look for it on Amazon; on Powell’s, or Barnes & Noble
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