Varmint IQ

There’s something I don’t understand.

Okay, there are a lot of things I don’t understand, but I’m going to limit this discussion to one thing in particular, and it isn’t quantum mechanics. It’s why people seem to want to believe that some traits are hard-coded in our genes, while others aren’t.

Usually, it’s the crappy stuff that’s genetic. Science journalists are jumping through hoops to show that obesity is hard-wired. Ditto alcoholism. Criminality, even. But nobody seems to want to believe that your genes are your destiny when comes to the good stuff, like intelligence, musicality and athleticism.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book, Outliers, on the subject. I haven’t read the book (having given up on Malcolm Gladwell since the last chapter of Blink, in which he undermined the entire theory of the book), but Kevin has, and one of the advantages of being the proverbial One Flesh is that I get to talk about books he has read as though I read them myself. They hypothesis of this particular book is that success is, to a large degree, determined by A) luck and B) practicing for 10,000 hours, and not so much to innate gifts.

You’ll get no argument from me about luck, but I’ve got a problem with the 10,000 hours theory. It seems to me that people with no gift give up on whatever skill they’re trying to build at about Hour Seven. The degree to which one perseveres is likely to be directly proportional to the size of one’s gift. I’m something of an expert on this, having not persevered at many, many things. Clarinet. Photography. Fiction. Stonemasonry. Tennis. One cheek swab would tell you all you need to know about why I’ve given them all up: I suck at them.

Intelligence is a particularly sticky wicket. While everyone concedes that genes are involved, there’s a general unwillingness to believe that we none of us can get any smarter.

This is compounded by the difficulty in measuring an innate thinking ability. It’s hard to imagine a test that will yield identical scores from identical twins, one of whom went to Harvard and one of whom was raised by wolves. And so parenting web sites are crammed with advice on how to raise your child’s IQ – read the right books, go to the right school, take practice tests.

And you can raise your IQ score. You just can’t get any smarter. I’m absolutely convinced that we are born with every iota of intelligence we’re ever going to have. It’s just that we can’t prove it because we don’t have a good enough test.

Which brings me to my opossum.

Those of you who stop by often know that raccoons have been terrorizing our chickens, gnawing away at the coop in the middle of the night. You also know that we’ve decided to trap, kill, and eat the culprit(s).

We borrowed a trap from our friend Les, who happened to have a raccoon-sized Havahart in his shed.

If you’ve never had to trap a wild animal, you may be unfamiliar with the Havahart trap. It’s a cage with a door that closes when the animal steps on a plate in the cage. It’s called “Havahart” because the assumption is that you’re going to take the trapped animal to a safe haven and let it go. I’m sure the marketers who named the trap fully understood that some of their customers would shoot and eat the animals they trap, but “Havablast” didn’t go over well with focus groups.

We baited the trap with sardines and put it out next to our compost pile, the site of many a midnight raccoon rave. For the first couple of nights, we got nothing, and then we got a something. A furry something. But it wasn’t a raccoon. It was an opossum.

We had nothing against the opossum, whose worst offense was stealing some turkey feed, so Kevin opened the cage to let it go. After a few moments, it realized it was free, and lumbered off into the woods, dazed and confused but unharmed.

Kevin and I speculated that we caught an opossum instead of a raccoon because raccoons are smarter than opossums, and know better than to eat sardines put out in a metal box. But, when I tried to ascertain opossums’ general intelligence level, I found that they are supposed to be quite smart.

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, “Results from some learning and discrimination tests rank opossums above dogs and more or less on a par with pigs in intelligence.”

If we can’t even measure human intelligence, how on earth can we measure and compare such disparate animals? I know we can arrive at some rough generalizations – rats are smart, turkeys are dumb – but to conclude that an opossum is smarter than a dog and “more or less” as smart as a pig seems unrealistically granular.

It also sounds like the beginning of a joke. A pig, a dog, and an opossum walk into a bar. Bartender says, “If the train leaves Chicago at 9:00 AM traveling at 60 miles per hour …”

Maybe the people who determine the animal intelligence hierarchy take into account how long the species has survived. Opossums have been around some 70 million years, so they must be doing something right. But, by that logic, horseshoe crabs should rule the world.

Unfortunately, the experts at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife didn’t compare opossum and raccoon intelligence, so I can neither confirm nor disprove my theory that raccoons are way smarter. I mean, come on. They’re always the ones who figure out how to open the garbage cans. They’re the ones who come into your house to eat the cat food. They’re the ones who have a long-term plan to break into the chicken coop.

But maybe it’s because they have 10,000 hours of practice. I think we should bait the trap with Kevin’s copy of Outliers.

14 people are having a conversation about “Varmint IQ

  1. Interesting… I had to look up, Quantum Mechanics (feeling very possum like). This is an excerpt.
    ‘The problems with giving an interpretation (not just a comforting, homey sort of interpretation, i.e., not just an interpretation according to which the world isn’t too different from the familiar world of common sense, but any interpretation at all)’…..(still feeling possum like.)
    Does that help with your theory~ xo

  2. I caught our coon on night 3 with chicken scraps, we did NOT eat it and the possum who lived next door never bothered with them. I think there is a chance that some animals just have preferences and personalities.

  3. Or maybe the ‘possum was just really, really hungry.

    You could try feeding the ‘coons with dog food and keep moving the food closer and closer into the trap.

    And I just have to tell you that when it comes to varmints, I would sooner buy a trap marketed as a Havablast than Havahart. Besides which, in most states it’s illegal to trap and release wild animals into different areas. It’s also illegal to trap and kill raccoons in the state of Oregon without a permit, but I can’t say as it would stop me, if things got that bad. And I’d also be inclined to eat the evidence. I hear they’re good braised.

  4. If you were going to eat the coon why not the opossum, if legal. I seem to remember recipes in the Foxfire series on early Appalachian life.

  5. Suzie — Does that help? Well, in a word …

    Cameron — If there’s an opposite of a Tiger Mother, that’s what I’ve got. But, despite the temptation, I can’t blame my parents for my lack of perseverence except in the sense that I inherited the laziness gene from *somewhere.*

    Karen — Or maybe you’re just better at trapping raccoons … I couldn’t bring myself to bait the trap with chicken. Maybe that’s where I went wrong.

    Paula — We can’t transport wild animals here, either, but you are allowed to hunt and trap raccoons (with appropriate licenses). And I also hear they’re good braised.

    Bob — We didn’t eat the opossum because it wasn’t doing us any harm. It is legal, and I hear opossum can make a decent meal, but since they’re’ not bothering us we decided not to find out for ourselves.

  6. eagergridlessbeaver says:

    hehe..yes, I am with you on Gladwell..some base sociologial theories wrapped around a mystery wrapped in an enigma…or sort of. I don’t think the Outliers as bait would work as most animals won’t eat crap.

    Having 2 dogs I would say 1 is smarter than a dog while the other is not as smart as a dog..and I know at least 4 people who are not as smart as my smart dog…so does that make dogs smarter than humans? Personally I think that when you compare animal intelligence to humans you are not comparing apples to are comparing humans to animals…I bet if there was a test written by dogs they would determine that humans are not as smart as humans cause they need to wipe thier bums when they poop and they need to cook thier food instead of having it those stupid humans go to work during the day instead of sleeping!

    Maybe the possum is the bully in the area and was guarding it..or maybe the raccoons being around the chickens has taught them ( like a chicken ) to never be doing what they are supposed to be doing.

  7. I’ve been dealing with a wily raccoon of late and I have a hypothesis: it’s not that the coons are smarter, it’s that they’re bigger. Three times this coon has gotten into my Havahart and taken the bait. But they use their tails to keep the door open and then back out the door. It would take an awfully big possum to pull that off.

  8. Presumably some individuals persevere despite not being particularly gifted and some individuals give up despite having a knack for something.
    I haven’t read Outliers, but why can’t perseverance and innate ability both be necessary to produce a prodigy?
    Why don’t you think people can get smarter? You can certainly get dumber (I don’t think you’ll disagree with that one). If you huff paint, snort cocaine, or sustain repeated blows to the head, you’ll get dumber. You can get more muscular and increase your testosterone output with training. You can increase your body’s ability to cope with low blood pH if you are a fabulous endurance athlete. Why shouldn’t you increase the speed and capacity of your neurons to process information with repeated training and use?

    • Amy — I think that perseverance and innate ability are definitely both necessary to produce an extraordinary talent. I think that, when we train or practice, we’re getting the most out of our ability, whatever level that is. We can teach ourselves to run faster, sing better, and, I suspect, think faster or better, but there is a ceiling. I’ve always wanted to take singing lessons, because I’d like to make the best possible use of the seven micrograms of talent I might have. But no amount of coaching and practice will turn me into Ella Fitzgerald. Sigh.

      I’ve tried, all my life, to give my brain a good workout. I try to digest complex ideas. I read a lot. I do puzzles. I try to spend as much time as I can with people smarter than I am. But none of it will turn me into Richard Feynman. Sigh.

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