Tag Archives: bowerbirds

Clean Sweep

The other day I was reading about cleaner wrasses. These are the fish, usually in coral reef community, that establish a place of business, and other fishes who want to be rid of parasites come onto location to be cleaned. They allow the wrasses to nip them all over to get the pests taken care of, even allowing the smaller fish to swim into their mouths to work their specialization there. Kind of a mix between a visit to the dentist and the car wash. Documentary makers have filmed the process multiple times, and, being humans, we project onto the piscine scene a kind of business template—an exchange of goods for services. Then we turn back to our own lives and forget the underwater world.

Image credit: Robbie N. Cada, courtesy FishBase, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Still, I have to wonder about what’s going on here in the realm of consciousness. We do not yet know what consciousness is, but we all recognize it in ourselves. We know we’re alive and conscious—except when we’re dreaming when we don’t seem to realize what’s going on in our brains isn’t really happening. Most of the time, however, we set our goals, have our intentions, and go about our business accordingly. What is the motive force that drives a fish to the cleaner wrasse’s studio? Isn’t there a level of consciousness involved to know that this fish’s house is where you need to be for this kind of treatment? Don’t the larger, predator fish know that if they eat the wrasse in their mouth they’ll have to find a new service provider? Are they aware of this or are they, as some scientists like to tell us, simply biological machines following their programming?

I’m not a scientist, but I see consciousness all around me. I watch the interactions of land animals—I generally don’t take trips under the sea, no matter what Sebastian says—and they are anything but simple. The birds on the wire and in the chokecherry trees have complex interactions. All you have to do is watch a single individual for a few minutes. They make decisions—the sky is a vast, open template with no obstacles, surely they have to decide why they want to go this direction and not that! And bowerbirds build nests as elaborate as Victorian mansions. Not that there are bowerbirds at my bus stop, or even in New Jersey. There are limits to how far even nature will go. As I stand here, waiting for my bus, I can’t help but think how like a cleaner wrasse I am. And I’m sure they must be conscious of what they’re doing since life’s all about the exchanges of goods and services.

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.