A friend recently asked me about their dog who was showing some unusual behaviour. The dog was suddenly acting fearfully around traffic, although there hadn’t been an obvious incident to spook him. I said “Sometimes clever animals get spooked by things just when they’re slightly ‘off’, they’re clever enough to recognise the pattern is wrong and start obsessing over why”

In some ways, this explanation is mainly to soothe the owner’s feelings. People like to think their animal is clever.

And I’m proof of this. Since having this conversation, I’ve been quietly re-evaluating some of Athena’s behaviours. Athena is a great example of a fearful cat, who runs away at the slightest provocation . . . except when Edinburgh had a brief but very welcome thunderstorm she sat by the window watching the lightning, completely calm. Living where we do, she has got a lot of experience with fireworks and other things that typically frighten animals, and she is utterly blase about them.

In fact, earlier this month we had a packed house, full of noisy family doing all the unpredictable things that Athena finds uncomfortable, and she still chose to join us, and to complain loudly about all the people sitting in her various spots. She even chose to sleep on the bed with our guest rather than on the floor with me (cow).

Like many people in my age and general middle class demographic, I greatly value intelligence. I want, very dearly, to believe that Athena’s general quirks are due to a very intelligent little cat mind that tries to understand a human world. And yet, as much as I want it, I still have to acknowledge this is a cat who regularly walks off windowsills and sofa edges because she’s too busy talking to me to watch where she’s going. 

I got very angry recently at a news article about the increased levels of unconditional offers being made to university. This was supposed to be bad because it would encourage students to take their foot off the gas and make them slack in the year before they got to university. There is a lot to unpack in that statement, which I may get in to another time, but I had also recently read this interesting blog post purporting that examinations make it easier for students with poor social capital to demonstrate their ability.

As an academic, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that exams test intelligence. I can just about say that certain formats of them test knowledge and skill acquisition. When scientists try to measure intelligence, they get caught in whole heap of challenging research. There is, we think, a thing about some people’s brains that makes them perform better in the tests we give them (tests which we’ve designed are not unbiased). However, believing that intelligence is malleable seems to also make people perform better in these tasks. There are many ways in which social capital helps you perform better in many of the ways we judge intelligence.

What about Athena’s social capital? Daughter of a teenage mum, separated from her mother shortly after birth and raised in foster care. She was ill for a period as baby, and so was slow to gain weight. She was separated from her own kind and adopted by someone who then suffered a mental health problem. She lived apart from her own kind, as is the culture she was adopted into. She developed a long-term condition health condition that gives her pain and discomfort.

When I think about it that way, watching Athena study some loud, cheerful strangers from a safe spot beside me seems like a very, very intelligent response to something unusual. It’s just my measurement is bad.


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