The best books on intelligence in humans, animals, and machines

Why am I passionate about this?

I became fascinated by the highest achievements of human intelligence while a graduate student in philosophy working on the discovery and justification of scientific theories. Shortly after I got my PhD, I started working with cognitive psychologists who gave me an appreciation for empirical studies of intelligent thinking. Psychology led me to computational modeling of intelligence and I learned to build my own models. Much later a graduate student got me interested in questions about intelligence in non-human animals. After teaching a course on intelligence in machines, humans, and other animals, I decided to write a book that provides a systematic comparison: Bots and Beasts.  


I wrote...

Bots and Beasts: What Makes Machines, Animals, and People Smart?

By Paul Thagard,

Book cover of Bots and Beasts: What Makes Machines, Animals, and People Smart?

What is my book about?

Octopuses can open jars to get food, and chimpanzees can plan for the future. An IBM computer named Watson won on Jeopardy! and Alexa knows our favorite songs. But do animals and smart machines really have intelligence comparable to that of humans? In Bots and Beasts, Paul Thagard looks at how computers (“bots”) and animals measure up to the minds of people, offering the first systematic comparison of intelligence across machines, animals, and humans. 

Thagard explains that human intelligence is more than IQ and encompasses such features as problem-solving, decision making, and creativity. He uses a checklist of twenty characteristics of human intelligence to evaluate the smartest machines—including Watson, AlphaZero, virtual assistants, and self-driving cars—and the most intelligent animals—including octopuses, dogs, dolphins, bees, and chimpanzees.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count

Paul Thagard Why did I love this book?

Richard Nisbett is one of the most influential social psychologists in the world, and we collaborated on the 1987 book Induction. His book on intelligence gives a good introduction to the psychology of intelligence and an incisive critique of attempts to use dubious research on a genetic basis for intelligence to explain racial inequality.

By Richard E. Nisbett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Intelligence and How to Get It as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Who are smarter, Asians or Westerners? Are there genetic explanations for group differences in test scores? From the damning research of The Bell Curve to the more recent controversy surrounding geneticist James Watson's statements, one factor has been consistently left out of the equation: culture. In the tradition of Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, world-class social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett takes on the idea of intelligence as biologically determined and impervious to culture with vast implications for the role of education as it relates to social and economic development. Intelligence and How to Get It asserts that intellect…


Book cover of The Nature of Human Intelligence

Paul Thagard Why did I love this book?

This collection of essays gives a good overview of current psychological research on human intelligence, ranging from traditional IQ research to criticisms of it by Robert Sternberg and Howard Gardner. It also includes overviews of research on cultural and brain aspects of intelligence. One startling observation is how little psychologists agree on a definition of intelligence.

By Robert J. Sternberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Nature of Human Intelligence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The study of human intelligence features many points of consensus, but there are also many different perspectives. In this unique book Robert J. Sternberg invites the nineteen most highly cited psychological scientists in the leading textbooks on human intelligence to share their research programs and findings. Each chapter answers a standardized set of questions on the measurement, investigation, and development of intelligence - and the outcome represents a wide range of substantive and methodological emphases including psychometric, cognitive, expertise-based, developmental, neuropsychological, genetic, cultural, systems, and group-difference approaches. This is an exciting and valuable course book for upper-level students to learn…


Book cover of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Paul Thagard Why did I love this book?

Frans de Waal is one of the leading researchers on intelligence in non-human animals and this book provides fascinating stories of ways in which chimpanzees and other species exhibit sophisticated kinds of problem-solving and learning. It is well complemented by his subsequent book on animal emotions: Mama’s Last Hug. You will learn that animals are a lot smarter than you thought. 

By Frans de Waal,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hailed as a classic, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? explores the oddities and complexities of animal cognition-in crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, bats, chimpanzees, and bonobos-to reveal how smart animals really are, and how we've underestimated their abilities for too long. Did you know that octopuses use coconut shells as tools, that elephants classify humans by gender and language, and that there is a young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University whose flash memory puts that of humans to shame? Fascinating, entertaining, and deeply informed, de Waal's landmark work will convince you to rethink everything you…


Book cover of Architects of Intelligence: The truth about AI from the people building it

Paul Thagard Why did I love this book?

This book provides a good introduction to the current state of machine intelligence through interviews with many leading practitioners including Geoffrey Hinton, Yann LeCun, Stuart Russell, and Demis Hassabis (DeepMind). You will get a sense of both of AI’s recent accomplishments and how far it falls short of full human intelligence.

By Martin Ford,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Architects of Intelligence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Financial Times Best Books of the Year 2018

TechRepublic Top Books Every Techie Should Read

Book Description

How will AI evolve and what major innovations are on the horizon? What will its impact be on the job market, economy, and society? What is the path toward human-level machine intelligence? What should we be concerned about as artificial intelligence advances?

Architects of Intelligence contains a series of in-depth, one-to-one interviews where New York Times bestselling author, Martin Ford, uncovers the truth behind these questions from some of the brightest minds in the Artificial Intelligence community.

Martin has wide-ranging conversations with twenty-three…


Book cover of How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine . . . for Now

Paul Thagard Why did I love this book?

Stanislas Dehaene is one of the leading European cognitive scientists and this book provides a deep discussion of the neuroscience of learning, a key component of intelligence. He makes a strong case that current machine learning techniques are inferior to the processes that operate in human brains even in the womb. He draws out important implications for education concerning how people learn best.

By Stanislas Dehaene,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How We Learn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"There are words that are so familiar they obscure rather than illuminate the thing they mean, and 'learning' is such a word. It seems so ordinary, everyone does it. Actually it's more of a black box, which Dehaene cracks open to reveal the awesome secrets within."--The New York Times Book Review

An illuminating dive into the latest science on our brain's remarkable learning abilities and the potential of the machines we program to imitate them

The human brain is an extraordinary learning machine. Its ability to reprogram itself is unparalleled, and it remains the best source of inspiration for recent…


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Coma and Near-Death Experience: The Beautiful, Disturbing, and Dangerous World of the Unconscious

By Alan Pearce, Beverley Pearce,

Book cover of Coma and Near-Death Experience: The Beautiful, Disturbing, and Dangerous World of the Unconscious

Alan Pearce Author Of Coma and Near-Death Experience: The Beautiful, Disturbing, and Dangerous World of the Unconscious

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

As a journalist, I'm driven to find stories that have not been covered before and to make clear the incomprehensible. I like people, and I like asking questions. I've covered wars and disasters, and on any given day, I could expect to see people at their very worst and at their very best. With my book about comas, I've met some of the finest people of my career, doctors, nurses, and other clinicians who are fighting the system, and coma survivors who are simply fighting to get through each and every day. This is the story I am now driven to tell.

Alan's book list on consciousness that demonstrates there is more to life than we know

What is my book about?

What happens when a person is placed into a medically-induced coma?

The brain might be flatlining, but the mind is far from inactive: experiencing alternate lives rich in every detail that spans decades, visiting realms of stunning and majestic beauty, or plummeting to the very depths of Hell while defying all medical and scientific understanding.

Everything you think you know about coma is wrong. Doctors call it 'sleeping' when in reality, many are trapped on a hamster wheel of brain-damaging, nightmarish events that scar those that survive for life. Others are left to question whether they touched levels of existence previously confined to fantasy or whether they teetered on the brink of this life and the next. Coma is not what you think.

Coma and Near-Death Experience: The Beautiful, Disturbing, and Dangerous World of the Unconscious

By Alan Pearce, Beverley Pearce,

What is this book about?

Explores the extraordinary states of expanded consciousness that arise during comas, both positive and negative

Every day around the world, thousands of people are placed in medically-induced comas. For some coma survivors, the experience is an utter blank. Others lay paralyzed, aware of everything around them but unable to move, speak, or even blink. Many experience alternate lives spanning decades, lives they grieve once awakened. Some encounter ultra-vivid nightmares, while others undergo a deep, spiritual oneness with the Universe or say they have glimpsed the Afterlife.

Examining the beautiful and disturbing experiences of those who have survived comas, Alan and…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in intelligence, artificial intelligence, and culture?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about intelligence, artificial intelligence, and culture.

Intelligence Explore 21 books about intelligence
Artificial Intelligence Explore 281 books about artificial intelligence
Culture Explore 106 books about culture