Wednesday, January 13, 2010


“Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much...the wheel, New York, wars and so on...while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man...for precisely the same reason.”

This is one of those quotes that cycles through my head over and over, never quite leaving my mind.
We humans think we're so special. We believe we're at the pinnacle of evolution. With exceptions only we are allowed to set--pets, for example--we believe that animals are mindless instinct machines without sentience, reason or imagination. This disdain extends even unto other classes of humans...Neanderthals, say, still widely dismissed as halfwits, despite having brains larger than ours. There is fairly conclusive evidence that our Neanderthal cousins had language. They used makeup and crafted jewelery, showing symbolic thought just like our own species. It may well be that they were actually smarter than us, but less aggressive.

That almost seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn't it? Smarter...and less aggressive? From the Mixed Martial Arts ring to the boardrooms of the Fortune 500, aggression in one form or another is a prized human trait. Suggest the opposite--that you should, oh, I don't know, turn the other cheek--and you're apt to be nailed to a cross, or something.

To be sure, we share this aggressive tendency with much of the animal's what makes a predator a predator, and we're the biggest predators going. But even the aggression we prize so much is dismissed as mindless when it's an animal exhibiting it.

I find that odd. Well, in truth, I don't...I've seen far too many humans walking around with God-complexes to imagine our species has anything other than a collective God-complex...but I'm distinctly at odds with most of my fellow humans when it comes to recognizing animal intelligence.

Simply put, I believe that many animals are intelligent, and that some of them have human-level intelligence, possibly (probably) even greater than human-level intelligence. Research into this is ongoing, but it keeps turning up startling new bits of information I've long accepted. The above mentioned dolphins, for example, are "cultural" animals with a strong sense of self and the ability to think about the future. This is treated as news, for some reason: anybody who's observed dolphins for any length of time could have told you this.

So now all of a sudden there's a movement to treat dolphins as "non-human persons". We've granted them near-human intelligence--which is okay, because we're doing the granting. But consider: these creatures have senses--echolocation, what looks for all the world like rudimentary telepathy--that humans lack. If we change our measurement of smarts a wee bit, might we not--possibly--come to the conclusion that dolphins are, in fact, even smarter?
Okay, so that's dolphins. We've long recognized that for mere animals, they're pretty brainy. Let's look at something a with a lot less mental star power: a bee.
I never realized how intelligent bees actually are. They have an incredibly well-developed sense of time and distance; they have a sophisticated "language" based on 'dancing' that is highly mathematical. They can find their way through mazes. They somehow have developed a honeycomb structure which our mathematics proves is the most efficient way to pack liquid into a volume of space.
Wikipedia, created by humans, is quick to note that none of these behaviours are indicative of individual intelligence. Perhaps not; but then bees (like many species of insect) are collective: a hive is much smarter than an individual bee, in the same way that a human society is considerably smarter than a single human. (It sure would be nice if more humans understood that.)
Or..take crows. They "make tools, play tricks on each other and caw among kin in a dialect all their own." Does that sound mindless to you? Because it doesn't to me.

Ant cities look very much like human cities, with recycling plants, air exchangers, sewers, and expressways. Ants go to war like humans do--they even have race wars, the reds versus the blacks. Mindless aggression? Certainly not: they make war to gain territory or food resources. They even farm food!
Here's a thought: there are an estimated quadrillion ants living on this planet. There are less than seven billion humans. Now you tell me, which is the dominant species on Earth? Us or them?

Humans may be pretty smart, but given the number of societies we've had that have gone poof! over the millennia, we're also demonstrably really, really stupid. Most of our stupidity can be chalked up, in fact, to this notion that we are the latest and greatest things on the planet, that intelligence is a strictly human trait, and that I'm better than you. In our rush to be separate and thus "better", we routinely ignore the interconnectedness of all living things. Some of our best teachers have been telling us this truth for a great many centuries. Most of the time, we don't take the message all that well. Some of us laugh. Some of us lash out.

Intelligence is universal. Even within human beings, there are many forms of intelligence, which is why I.Q. tests are largely discredited now. I believe--strike that, I know--that animals are intelligent too.

If we want to keep our place as the swingin' dicks of all creation, it might be a good idea to stop acting like the swingin' dicks of all creation. We are not alone.


Rocketstar said...

I agree with much of what you said but I do hold humans and our cognitive abilities above animals (I don't think you meant it literally).

I always go back to our purpose, to explore the universe so once a doplhin can swing his dick on the moon, I'll put them int he same category ;o)

Rocketstar said...

comment to recieve comments, why doesn't google allow you to check the box at time of comment/sign in? damn google

Ken Breadner said...

What an image, a dolphin swingin' his dick on the moon. I can just hear him chattering away up there.


Oh, no, I don't mean it literally in the sense you suggest. We're the kings of this here castle. But your moon example shows both sides of the coin. We were smart enough to get there...and stupid enough to pretty much lose interest once we'd made it.
Hell, an aggressive creature would recognize and exploit Luna's military worth...the moon's escape velocity is not high. Catapult something towards Terra--it doesn't have to be a nuclear weapon, it could just be a big rock--and WE HAVE NO REALISTIC WAY TO STOP IT.
Sorry about the comment filtering, but I get a lot of spam off this blog (spam: shit posing as mail).