Always I’m surprised when other people seem surprised, specifically about animal intelligence. Then I have to remind myself that our culture has absorbed the biblical view that people are different so thoroughly that even scientists believe it. I watch the birds out my window quite a lot. What they do is intentional and often quite intelligent. True, not all animals are college material, but they are far brighter than the “automaton” paradigm with which I grew up. So when I saw a piece in The Guardian titled “Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information” I kept the tab open until I could read it. Then I woke up this morning wondering why one of my many open tabs had the header “Sperm” on it, only to remember that I was going to read about whales.
I’ve written about Moby-Dick many times on this blog. Although Melville didn’t experience financial success with it, he managed to pen one of the most profound and memorable novels ever. One of the things he stressed was the intelligence of the whaler’s prey. The Guardian article describes how, due to the magic of digitized log books, researchers can now compare captains’ notes about whaling. What this comparison makes clear is that whales shared the information about attacks and avoided the areas where they occurred. Despite the massive size of their brains, researchers had supposed whales to be rather stupid—or automatons—simply waiting to get slaughtered. Animal intelligence is visible anywhere as long as we’re not afraid of that bogeyman, “anthropomorphism.”
We’ve been taught that human beings are so special that we think other animals act like us only because we’re projecting onto them. Since the Bible informs us that we’re special and they’re further down the food chain, we must assume that creatures who destroy their own planet believing that they’re serving the will of God are somehow smarter than animals living in harmony with their environment. We’re so smart that we had to add an extra sapiens to Homo sapiens to show just how special we are. I’ve long suspected that animals are far more intelligent than we allow them to be. Philip Hoare’s article offers us yet more evidence that we’ve underestimated our non-sapiens companions time and again. Ironically we can accept that evolution explains how life forms change over time, but we somehow can’t let go of the story that says we’re somehow different. I think we need to get out more and simply watch how animals behave.