The most arrogant creatures on Earth

Dominique Mosbergen writes: Researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia argue in an upcoming book, The Dynamic Human, that humans really aren’t much smarter than other creatures — and that some animals may actually be brighter than we are.

“For millennia, all kinds of authorities — from religion to eminent scholars — have been repeating the same idea ad nauseam, that humans are exceptional by virtue that they are the smartest in the animal kingdom,” the book’s co-author Dr. Arthur Saniotis, a visiting research fellow with the university’s School of Medical Sciences, said in a written statement. “However, science tells us that animals can have cognitive faculties that are superior to human beings.”

Not to mention, ongoing research on intelligence and primate brain evolution backs the idea that humans aren’t the cleverest creatures on Earth, co-author Dr. Maciej Henneberg, a professor also at the School of Medical Sciences, told The Huffington Post in an email.

The researchers said the belief in the superiority of that human intelligence can be traced back around 10,000 years to the Agricultural Revolution, when humans began domesticating animals. The idea was reinforced with the advent of organized religion, which emphasized human beings’ superiority over other creatures. [Continue reading…]

At various times in my life, I’ve crossed paths with people possessing immense wealth and power, providing me with glimpses of the mindset of those who regard themselves as the most important people on this planet.

From what I can tell, the concentration of great power does not coincide with the expression of great intelligence. What is far more evident is a great sense of entitlement, which is to say a self-validating sense that power rests where power belongs and that the inequality in its distribution is a reflection of some kind of natural order.

Since this self-serving perception of hierarchical order operates among humans and since humans as a species wield so much more power than any other, it’s perhaps not surprising that we exhibit the same kind of hubris collectively that we see individually in the most dominant among us.

Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that our sense of superiority is rooted in ignorance.

Amit Majmudar writes: There may come a time when we cease to regard animals as inferior, preliminary iterations of the human—with the human thought of as the pinnacle of evolution so far—and instead regard all forms of life as fugue-like elaborations of a single musical theme.

Animals are routinely superhuman in one way or another. They outstrip us in this or that perceptual or physical ability, and we think nothing of it. It is only our kind of superiority (in the use of tools, basically) that we select as the marker of “real” superiority. A human being with an elephant’s hippocampus would end up like Funes the Memorious in the story by Borges; a human being with a dog’s olfactory bulb would become a Vermeer of scent, but his art would be lost on the rest of us, with our visually dominated brains. The poetry of the orcas is yet to be translated; I suspect that the whale sagas will have much more interesting things in them than the tablets and inscriptions of Sumer and Akkad.

If science should ever persuade people of this biological unity, it would be of far greater benefit to the species than penicillin or cardiopulmonary bypass; of far greater benefit to the planet than the piecemeal successes of environmental activism. We will have arrived, by study and reasoning, at the intuitive, mystical insights of poets.

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  1. …and a natural consequence would be that we would stop eating and exploiting other animals as we recognise our place amongst them… Perhaps we should do that anyway?

  2. Steve Zerger says

    There can be no doubt however that we excel all creatures in sheer destructiveness.

    Amit’s article is excellent. I would have chosen Robinson Jeffers as the representative poetic voice. His entire career was spent exploring these issues, whereas Whitman is too much associated with muscular American expansionism. Jeffers is sadly unappreciated outside the circles of deep ecology because he committed an unpardonable offense – telling humans that they were neither central nor important in the universe.

  3. Lovely articles, thank you! But I don’t hold out much hope for humankind — Western humankind, at any rate — accepting the superhuman capacities of nonhuman animals as profoundly important and crucial to our own survival. And I do base my pessimism on that obsession with tool-making and tool-using. For example, in 1492:

    “European secular government was a tangle of decayed feudal loyalties and personal ambition. The last proper roads had been built by the Romans more than a thousand years before. The rapidly growing cities were unplanned, ramshackle, without sanitation, seething with poverty and disease. If famine struck a region, the state was quite unable to provide relief. Life expectancy oscillated between the high teens and low thirties, lower than in the most deprived nations of today. THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF EUROPE WERE TECHNOLOGICAL, NOT SOCIAL. It had the best ships, the best steel, the best guns; it also had conditions desperate enough to make its people want to leave and use these things to plunder others.”

    — Donald Wright, *Stolen Continents*

    Technology has long been the yardstick by which the white West measures the worth of a society. The genocidal colonizers of the Americas didn’t pause long enough to discover if perhaps the indigenous populations made up for their lack of the wheel with notable social achievements that Europeans might learn from. They shot first and asked questions later. Much later.

    It wasn’t until the 1960s that the discipline of anthropology finally abandoned what had been its central theoretical framework since the discipline was established, namely the hierarchical division of human societies into Civilized and Primitive, with the primitive divided among (from high to low) pastoral, barbarian, and savage.

    Anthropology may have been in possession of this knowledge of human unity for fifty years now, but I don’t see that it has trickled down to the rest of us in anything like a satisfactory way. Climate change is likely to finish us off before we seriously attend to the possibility of the unity of all animals, human and nonhuman. (Which doesn’t stop me from celebrating the decline of the West and the possible rise of some wiser societies before we do ourselves in.)

  4. I think you’re being bamboozled by a quirk of academia, especially as it interfaces the public, where standards of argument give way to flamboyant gestures. There’s a big payoff in research for originality, and this translates into there being a second-level payoff for mere contrarianism, which looks like originality, if you squint.

    Contrariarianism can be achieved almost algorithmically: you say yes, I say no. Real research in human and animal cognition is flourishing, and it’s about what each species can do, not whether it’s better or worse than some other species. These guys are just playing with the word ‘smart’, to make a name and a buck.

  5. Steve Zerger says

    I think this is really just the same thing evolutionary biologists have been saying for some time. It doesn’t make any sense to talk in terms of higher or lower forms of life. There are just niches to fill and successful or unsuccessful adaptations.

    Perhaps the most relevant comparison is the whether an adaptation is stable – i.e. whether it tends to destroy the niche it occupies. Homo sapiens doesn’t look like a superior adaptation at this point.

  6. Steve Zerger says

    hquain has a good point about the use of the word “smart” in the first article. I think it is probably more useful to think in terms of the quality and richness of experience as Amit does when he describes a dog’s olfactory sense as being like a “Vermeer of scent”. When one considers it this way, it seems obvious that all animals experience aesthetic values in unique ways and degrees.