©2019 C. Henry Martens
Human beings continue to learn. Well, some of us do. And one of the more striking lessons the more intelligent of us are learning is just how unintelligent our species is.
The rate of change in scientific knowledge is staggering, but along with that change is how yesterday’s “knowledge” is today’s opportunity for new thinking. Well-accepted theory has given way to questioned conclusions, leading to new understanding.
Dinosaurs are no longer big lizards but instead are as likely to be classed as early birds. Neanderthals are no longer distant cousins but are now established relatives… and they aren’t the only ones. New thinking has led to the idea that dogs are not just descended from a single line but evolved separately in several geographical areas independently.
And our perceptions of learning and thinking and brain-involved abilities are changing dramatically as well. Our notion that brain size is necessary to intelligence has become so challenged that the only thing standing between that old conclusion and a new one recognizing higher intelligence in animals, large and small, is our pride. We are even beginning to understand that plants think, and that includes in many of the ways we perceive thinking in the animal kingdom… including ourselves.
Is our new knowledge going to eventually lead to recognition of animals (and who knows, plants?) being more intelligent than us in some ways?
Oh… perish the thought.
The human ego tends to shy away from any idea that humans aren’t the center of the universe in every possible way. And I mean that literally. It wasn’t too long ago that we humans thought the sun revolved around Earth because it was accepted that we human beings create meaning for all that exists. Without the superior creatures that are us, the universe would not be “right.”
(Yeah, right… heavy sarcasm)
So, let’s consider any evidence that might contradict our self-aggrandized perceptions of superiority. Prepare yourself, because you may find this unpleasant.
I recently read an article saying that crows are being trained to pick up litter, specifically cigarette butts. This got me thinking, not about the intelligence of crows so much, but more about that humans are stupid enough to throw lit cinders from car windows after inhaling toxic fumes deep into their bodies. All while knowing the consequences. And we’ve been doing this for generations…
Makes one wonder, eh? Just to be fair, smoking is the low hanging fruit in searching for examples of human stupidity. The majority of smokers will agree that smoking is a less-than-well-thought-out activity. And if you don’t smoke, don’t go congratulating yourself on being more intelligent. We all engage in self-destructive behaviors on a regular basis.
So below I’ll list some random thoughts about animals and the intelligence they exhibit, and you can consider if these intellectual capabilities are mere instinct or choice. You can also ask yourself if humans or other animals engage in these activities, and consider the relative intelligence of the animals that share in, or avoid, the activity.
Some animals are self-aware. Dolphins, elephants, some primates, can identify an image as their own in a mirror.
If you enclose a pig in a sufficiently large area, it will defecate in one corner so that it doesn’t have to live in its own filth. I don’t know of a single animal in the entire world that will actively seek out a pristine, beautiful spot to dump accumulated filth… as human beings do… instead of using free landfills.
Termites design and construct their cities using a cognizance of solar power, something that has eluded humankind until recently. Even as the advantages of solar value are recognized, there are people actively engaged in fighting to maintain less efficient industries.
Birds of the family Corvidae not only use tools but manufacture implements for specific uses they have never encountered. They may have a brain less than an inch wide, yet they tackle and succeed at tasks that stump primates easily. These birds also remember faces, recognizing individuals as attractive or dangerous or benign, and they do it with limited contact and generate long term memories.
Grazing animals, often considered dull and unimaginative, can solve complex puzzles. They open gates, find weak spots in fences, and can overcome obstacles intentionally designed by people to confine them.
Octopus, squid, and cuttlefish exhibit unusual curiosity and puzzle solving skills. They can mimic their surroundings through color and pattern variations and even by changing the texture of the skin. Not only do they mimic their background, but some choose to mimic other species either to entice interest or to deter it.
Squirrels excel at deception. When they know they are being observed, they mask their intentions and camouflage their activity in order to hide their caches of nuts. They also make three-dimensional maps to remember how to find their treasure troves.
Have you ever seen a trophy mounted in the den of a predator? I do know that cats will kill without necessity, but no animal species kills like humans do… to pump the ego.
Dogs exhibit a huge repertoire of communication skills, some exhibiting the ability to understand color, size, direction, shape, and names… among other things. The average owner lacks the ability to understand more than ten visual cues that a dog expresses.
Elephants remember places and routes they visited as infants, decades later. Few people can do more than visualize images of remembered places.
Pigeons and other birds can find their way to a location without the benefit of having experienced a journey or landmarks to guide them.
And let’s not forget that plants think. Well-documented studies prove that plants observe, study, plan, and execute strategies. They care for family, invade opponents’ territories, and even sacrifice to ensure survival. Humans are only recently becoming cognizant of what plants do as intentional routine and have as long as they have existed. If a human understands the full impact of implications concerning plant intelligence, they might choose to eat meat and leave the plants alone.
These are but a few examples of intelligence recently realized yet remain beyond human capacity to understand. We are beginning to recognize animals speak in languages. Tool use, once believed to be exclusive to humans, is now recognized in more species every year.
We humans have always tended to overlook what was in front of our noses, mainly because we are self-centered. If an animal exhibited a behavior and there was no human use for that ability “to us,” then there was no reason to value what we couldn’t put to use.
Lately, humans have become more introspective, becoming more questioning of our own abilities in relation to those species we share the planet with. We may not be as superior as we think.