Tag Archives: animal intelligence

Human Omniscience

This might take some thought, but please bear with me. I’ve been reading about how some scientists are eager to promote rationality only as the true understanding of the universe. The flaws in this logic are immense. The greatest gaff here is assuming that evolved biological creatures with only five senses have come to comprehend the vastness of a universe in which we matter very, very, very, (and some scientific notation may be helpful here) very little. And we assume that’s all there is to know. Consider that when you want to spot the Pleiades in the nighttime sky, the best way to do it is not to look directly at the constellation. Our rods, which are far more sensitive than our cones, are not concentrated in the center of our field of vision. That means, in some circumstances, you see something better by looking slightly away from it. Don’t take my word for it, test it yourself on a clear night.

We also know that some animals have senses that we don’t. When’s the last time you picked up the earth’s magnetic field? We know it’s there and we know that some animals sense it. We don’t. Or consider the ant. If ants make you itchy, any hive mind will do. There are creatures right here on earth that think collectively, not as individuals. As humans we’ve evolved to think that our limited experience tells us everything there possibly is to know about truth. We don’t know how living under water influences perceptions because we can’t do it. No, we’re a race of surface dwellers. (There’s a metaphor there for those of you who believe in such things.) We’ve learned some basic laws of physics and suddenly we preside over the courtroom of the universe since our evolved logic is the only and the best the cosmos has to offer.

Evolution, however, also made us religious. If logic is at all what it seems we have to admit that study after study has shown the benefits of religious belief to the beleaguered human psyche. If we try to measure it empirically it crumbles in our fingers. Only logic would tell us simply to ignore it then. I’m no enemy of reason. It’s the best way we have of getting along in this world. I love science and support its evidence-based health. It’s just that as I’m standing here in the dark wondering where the seven sisters are, I sometimes have to trust my rods instead of focusing on what I can see plainly with my everyday sight. Logic tells me there are other things outside my sensory range as well.

Photo credit: NASA

An Elephant’s 100 Percent

When I walked out of that dissertation defense, still a little unsure whether I’d passed or not, I thought my testing days were over. My early memories of struggling with exams—I wrote that a sphere was a kind of weapon on one vocabulary test I recall—made me anxious for an end of the process. Hadn’t I proved myself time and time and time again? People are funny that way. We’re suspicious of those who pass. Are they really as smart as that, or have they learned to game the system? (Admittedly, with what’s going on in Washington these days doubts about intelligence have definitely earned their keep.) Tests, however, have become less common these days, at least in the fearful exam room context. Now we’re giving them to animals.

It has long been clear to me that animals are quite intelligent. When that mouse, cat, squirrel, or robin pauses in front of you, looks you in the eye, then decides its course of action, it’s clearly thinking. Of course, some animals are more on the GOP scale of intelligence, such as deer that bolt out in front of cars, while others—ironically including elephants—show up 45 in tests we assign. An article in The Independent describes how elephants are far smarter than we’ve given them credit for being. Jealousy, perhaps, makes the elephant’s own party withdraw protections from endangered species. We’ve got to be sure nobody shows us up. At least not while we’re on camera.

Animals have greater thinking abilities than we’ve been willing to admit. For being so highly evolved, we’re an awfully petty species. We don’t want to share our great accomplishments with others. We’ll call the amazing architecture of the bowerbird “instinct” rather than admit they can build homes better than many in the Appalachians can. We’ll kick over anthills rather than face the fact that a hive mind is a terrible thing to waste. We’ve known for decades, if not more, that all life is interconnected. Because we’ve got opposable thumbs and reasonable cranial capacity, we’re the best thing this planet could hope to evolve, so we tell ourselves. What has made us so insecure? Why do we find the prospect of animal intelligence so frightening? It’s terribly hard to give up the role of being lord and master, I guess. Or if we were to switch it to a classroom analogy, we always want to be the teacher, never the student. But after walking out of that dissertation defense twenty-five years ago I learned that the testing had only begun.

Dog Daze

I read quite a bit about animals. One reason is that when you’re counting all the species on the planet we’re pretty clearly among the animal part. Having grown up with many pets, the dogs particularly stand out. We tended to have only one dog at a time and they were so full of personality that it obviously wasn’t a matter of projecting to understand that one was more or less optimistic or joyful than another. Some could be mean while others were loving. There was quite a bit of buzz about W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose back in January. For Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2017 Reading Challenge the book fit one of the categories for me, and so I found myself reading about animals again. The thing about buzz is that I listen with only half an ear. I didn’t know much about the book except that it was a novel narrated from a dog’s point of view.

A couple of things struck me as I got into the story. One was that the protagonist ended up still believing that humans were more important than dogs. I suppose there’s some kind of evidence for that, from a dog’s viewpoint, but it doesn’t seem very strong to me. After all, we’ve bred wolves into pugs and cockapoos with an intentionality that even Mr. Darwin would’ve recognized as unnatural selection. Left to their own wolves would’ve adapted, but they’re pack animals and while dogs may think us the alphas, they’re each an important part of the group. They are giving, but that’s the nature of being in a pack. It’s also something that elected officials in Washington could stand to learn. When there aren’t rifles and traps, pack animals prosper.

The second thing that stood out about A Dog’s Purpose was reincarnation. The idea scares me. Life’s been a long challenge this time around and, unlike Nietzsche I’m not sure I could face it this exact way again. In any case, reincarnation only works if there are souls to pull it off. Cameron posits that for Toby to become a fully developed Buddy four cycles of reincarnation are needed. Like a good Platonist, our protagonist recalls the important lessons from each previous life and is able to develop into a more fulfilled dog each time around. The karma here is good. Cameron does seem to “get it” from a human-projected dog’s point of view. It can be fun, and it can be sad. The important lesson, for me, is that animals are who we are and to be a successful pack we need to look out for the good of each other.

Monkey Puzzle

One of the unexpected consequences of Christian theology is the ongoing insistence in science that human beings are qualitatively different from other animals. Actually, it goes back to the Hebrew Bible and the concept of “the image of God.” As the absolute line between human and beast continues to blur (intelligence, tool use, language use—you name it) mainstream teaching has trouble admitting that our special differences aren’t that different. A Washington Post story by Darryl Fears describes how capuchin monkeys have been using tools to extract cashews from their toxic husks for at least 700 years. These monkeys use a two-rock system to get at cashews, which, in their natural state, are inedible. The surprise here is that this makes these monkeys denizens of the Stone Age and capable of teaching complex behavior to their offspring.

Animals watch parents to learn to eat—it might seem to be a simple idea. In reality it’s more complicated than that. As I watched a doe and fawn foraging the other day, it occurred to me that what we call “instinct” is a way of getting around admitting animal intelligence. Why would a newborn (“unconscious”) animal seek to feed, or flee from predators? We call it instinct, but what we really mean is a form of will, a desire to survive. This “will” pervades nature well below the human-animal divide. Plants strive to thrive, and exhibit a “will” to live. By just taking all this for granted and calling it “instinct” we’ve further cut ourselves off from the organic world of which we’re all a part.

Christian culture gave rise to scientific method. No doubt this is an embarrassing scenario for those who believe science should reduce all the wonder of being alive to mathematical equations. Can’t we just pretend that rationality was creeping in from the beginning? Aristotle was going that way wasn’t he? But his work was “lost,” only to be recovered by Muslims who saw the value of such logical thinking and Christians—in an over-simplified history—wanted to catch up. Meanwhile, in the Dark Ages monkeys were using an intricate system to extract tasty nuts from toxic casings without the benefit of any religion at all. The Stone Age, we easily forget, was the first recognizable step on the road to the technological world we inhabit today. And we continue to use an outmoded paradigm to understand our place in that world.


Not Knowing

WhatIDontKnowAboutAnimalsBegin with a basic premise: we cannot know what a creature without language thinks. Add in the thoughtful anxieties of a post-domestic writer who knows about animals and you have What I Don’t Know About Animals, by Jenny Diski. Part biography, part science, part philosophy, wholly human. I knew from the day the book was released that I would read it since, like the author, I am one haunted by the relationship between the exploited and the exploiter. Diski’s confessions are difficult to read at times, veiling herself, as she does behind the curtains of one’s most private experiences, but she reveals plenty to those who read on. We can’t know for certain what another person thinks, so how can we know what a sentient animal thinks? Some, following Descartes and Skinner, would declare that animals don’t think, they simply do as programmed. The rest of us know that they are wrong. The evidence accumulates more each year that animals think and feel, but, as Diski repeatedly points out, we need to drive with the brakes on. We can’t get inside them to actually know if human experience corresponds at all with animal experience. We’ve shared the planet for millions of years, but we’ve lost track of our common origins.

As I suspected, the Bible came into the discussion. The book of Genesis lurks in the background of most human-animal rationalizations. The divine division into separate “kinds” must be kept discrete at all times. The problem is, nature won’t always play along with that game. One type slowly morphs into another and some biologists are even questioning the usefulness of “species” at all. Fear of bestiality, as Diski points out, is found already in the Bible. Best to keep everything in its proper pigeon-hole, whether that’s where it belongs or not. Genesis gives us the right to exploit, and so we continue to use animals for our own purposes. Although the feline, it turns out, may have figured out how to set this order on its head. In some cases.

What I Don’t Know About Animals is not a defense of vegetarianism or of radical, thoughtless abandon. Diski writing on spiders will cause many heads to nod in agreement, and her rage against the loss of the common lady-bug struck an amazingly responsive chord with this reader. The lady-bug’s demise came at human tampering, importing asian beetles as pest control—beetles that eventually edged out the harmless lady-bug, replacing the Volkswagen of beetles with a biting, omnivorous, massing pest. In Wisconsin the southern side of our faculty house was literally blanketed with them in the spring. Diski uses the same word I did then: biblical. Swarms seem to be the way that the Almighty has of telling us too much of even a good thing will go bad. Although I couldn’t agree with every statement Diski makes, I have the feeling this is a book I will reread more than once. Wisdom often comes in the form of admitting just how little we know.

Crowing Up

GiftsOfTheCrow Whether we climb up or down the evolutionary scale, one factor remains constant—our human sense of superiority. Despite the castigation of biblical-era thinking in the eyes of many scientists, few are willing to relinquish that Genesis-bestowed sense of being the pinnacle of nature. We know the universe is vast, but we assume we’re the best and brightest in it. Climbing down the ladder a bit, we like to distance ourselves from our fellow creatures because of our superior mental capacity. That is why I am so engrossed by scientists who explore animal intelligence. We find we are not so different after all. Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell is such a book.

If you’re like most people in this electronic age, you probably haven’t given much thought to corvids. Corvids are the members of the crow family: ravens, jays, magpies, and, of course, crows. Scientists have long known that these birds are exceptionally intelligent, and Marzluff and Angell have written a spell-binding little book that shows a remarkable level of intellect among the birds. Documented cases of tool making and use, conscientious interaction, and perhaps even language, have occurred among the corvids. We try to shoo them from our crops with “scarecrows” and we poison them en masse when they become “pests,” but when we take the time to understand them, we find that we may be far darker than the crows.

Not that Gifts of the Crow is all that easy-going. There is plenty of brain physiognomy and quite a bit about brain chemistry here as well. Knowing that not all of us are scientists, though, Marzluff and Angell include a generous portion of narrative description of what corvids have been observed to accomplish. For three days in a row I climbed off the bus stunned, scanning the skies for crows, just to see for myself. In this suburban jungle outside the New York City metropolitan area, crows aren’t so abundant as they were when I lived in the Midwest. They will, however, serve to remind me, when I see one, that our privileged place in nature has more to do with our thumbs than with our intelligence. When I saw a solitary crow atop a tree during a neighborhood stroll after finishing the book, I stopped, smiled, and bowed. Nature belongs to each and every creature, and there sat one intelligent enough to appreciate it.

To Be, Or

Science and Nonbelief

Science is, according to Taner Edis, ambitious. While Science and Nonbelief is somewhat sympathetic to the religiously minded, Edis demonstrates how science aggressively tackles the issues steadfastly claimed by religions, and ultimately triumphs. Interestingly enough, early on in the book Edis notes that “truth” is a philosophical concept, and science operates on the principle of the best explanatory theory of the moment. So far I am in complete agreement. I guess the part that gives me the most trouble is the assumption that reason is the only way of knowing. Perhaps I’m just not enough of a scientist to know such things, but it appears to me that all “lower” animals appear to get along very well in the world without great doses of “reason” that supposedly catapult humanity far above the other species. Scientific observation would seem to confirm that many animals feel emotion—after all, what is fight or flight if not an emotional response? And since we are animals, I reason, have we lost something when we leave feeling aside as a way of knowing?

Edis is quite fair-minded. He notes that science has no way to prove or disprove the existence of a deity, or deities, but he also states that the empirical method is so successful that a spiritual world is no longer required. He may be correct. The vast majority of the people in the world feel he is wrong, however. I may state this since we know, statistically, that most people in the world believe in some form of religion. Rational or not, here they come! It would seem that evolution has endowed us with religion, or an awareness of something we feel rather than reasoning out. And yet, we are told, science takes no prisoners.

I often ponder the fact that no one person has all the answers. Part of the human condition involves possessing limited resources for specializing in too many fields. Polymaths become rarer each year as specialists grow more and more precise. In this great mix of human learning, science often steps in and claims all the marbles belong to it. The rest of us have lost ours, apparently. There’s no denying that applied science has been very successful in bettering our understanding of our universe and our lot in the world. That doesn’t mean that all will believe in it. The title of Edis’ book is apt; belief is the real issue in attempting to fit religion and science into the same world. It is quite clear that religion doesn’t explain much in the way of the natural world. I wonder, however, if science is really capable of encapsulating all of what it means to be human.