Is human intelligence overrated?
Experts suggest that our great, big brains may not be so great after all
*Originally published on June 22, 2023.
Are we too smart for our own good?
Human intelligence has beaten back disease, allowed people around the world to communicate with each other, and to explore deep space and the ocean floor. That's the good news.
But according to Justin Gregg, a senior researcher with the Dolphin Communication Project and the author of the book If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal, our big brains present a big problem — not just for humans but for life on Earth itself.
It was his work with dolphins that first got him thinking how vaunting our intelligence as being uniquely superior to that of other animals has often become an exercise in our own arrogance and hubris.
"People were always asking me questions about dolphin intelligence, because I'm always talking about animal intelligence and dolphin intelligence," said Gregg. "And people are often asking: are dolphins as smart as humans? Or maybe smarter than humans?"
His research led him to a shift in his view on our much-vaunted intelligence.
"Maybe it's a bad thing if dolphins were as smart as humans because maybe human intelligence isn't all that great, then people might appreciate dolphin and other animal intelligence more by realizing that maybe human intelligence isn't the thing we should be comparing every other animal's way of thinking against," Gregg said.
He adds that our intelligence is also responsible for species becoming extinct, "thanks to human activities, at a rate that we've never seen in history other than an enormous asteroid hitting the Earth."
"Humans are on track at the moment to be more destructive than an asteroid when it comes to loss of biodiversity. And that's only really thanks to our technological feats, our cultural ability to transmit information and create these amazing cities that we live in. That's all thanks to our intelligence. So in that sense, our intelligence has been really bad for the planet and the animals that live on it."
'Intelligence is plastic and flexible'
Thomas Moynihan studies the history of ideas and is a researcher at Cambridge University's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. He says this idea of the human brain being the cause of the ills of the world has a long lineage.
"This goes back to Saint Augustine, the idea of original sin. The current form of human intelligence is potentially an awful thing for the rest of the biosphere. And I would say it actually, evidently is."
However, he says humans brooding about how terrible we are because of our intelligence may be just as wrong-headed.
"Intelligence is free, intelligence is plastic and flexible, and so we can become intelligent in different ways," said Moynihan.
"We can become intelligent in ways that might reverse or repair or rectify some of that damage that we've caused upon each other and the rest of the world. And that might be naive, but it's something that I hope is possible."
The ability of our brains to reason is often thought of as one of the huge benefits of being human. After all, it's our reasoning faculty that led to the creation of great works of art, as well as the scientific and technological advances which have made our lives easier and more enjoyable than in ages past.
But it's also that very reasoning capacity that allows societies and their leaders to rationalize justifications for wars of annihilation and genocide.
"Because of our ability to rationalize why we do things from an ethical perspective, we can justify our actions for sometimes murdering millions of people, and that is something that animals can't do, either," said Gregg.
"If they're violent, it's usually in response to an immediate issue. But humans can decide in the future to just eradicate a million people for some moral reason. And that really sets us apart from other animals, and not in a good way."
Kristin Andrews is a professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto and is the York Research Chair in Animal Minds.
"I think it's really dangerous to romanticize other animals and think that they're just very nice and aren't going to build gas chambers, or do horrible things to one another just because they don't have the technology to do it right now," Andrews said.
Animals can be horrific to each other as well.- Philosopher Kristin Andrews
She points to the extreme violence that chimpanzees inflict on each other when they go to war with each other.
"[They] encroach the territory of other groups to kill the infants, kidnap the females, castrate the males so they can't have more infants and then take over that territory. Why do they want the territory? So they can hunt more monkeys. This is kind of a jerky thing to do, right?
"We can talk about rape and other non-human animals as well. I've seen this before in dolphins... and orangutans. This is not sweet and gentle at all. Animals can be horrific to each other as well."
The effect of anthropomorphism
It's not surprising that philosophers have for thousands of years pondered the minds of animals, often projecting onto them human moral attributes.
Aristotle did it in his History of Animals.
Animals also differ from one another in regard to character in the following respects. Some are good-tempered, sluggish, and little prone to ferocity, as the ox; others are quick tempered, ferocious and unteachable, as the wild boar; some are intelligent and timid, as the stag and the hare; others are mean and treacherous, as the snake; others are noble and courageous and high-bred, as the lion; others are thorough-bred and wild and treacherous, as the wolf: for, by the way, an animal is highbred if it come from a noble stock, and an animal is thorough-bred if it does not deflect from its racial characteristics. Further, some are crafty and mischievous, as the fox; some are spirited and affectionate and fawning, as the dog.
– excerpt from History of Animals by Aristotle
And it has long been taken for granted by thinkers across the ages that our superior intelligence is what makes us unique in the animal kingdom.
But that exceptionalism comes with a price.
In 1874, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published Untimely Meditations in which he wrote about the envy he felt while observing cattle, who appeared unburdened by the anxieties that are part and parcel of human thought.
Consider the cattle grazing as they pass you by. They do not know what is meant by yesterday or today. They leap about, eat, rest, digest, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. This is a hard site for man to see, for though he thinks himself better than the animals, because he is human, he cannot help envying them, their happiness.
– excerpt from Untimely Meditations by Friedrich Nietzche
Turns out, the desire Nietzsche felt to live a natural and intellectually unburdened life of an animal has a long history as well.
"There's been a tradition going back the longest amount of time that's regarded animals as happier, more stable, more natural. And humans are actually this diseased animal that's diseased because it has this curse of being free. And it has to invent things to survive. It's weak in the face of nature." said Moynihan.
"It goes back to the ancients. These people will discuss this idea that maybe animals are happier because they're more stable than they live in the world in a more unreflecting way."
We should be suspicious when we're projecting our desires and wishes onto other animals.- Researcher Thomas Moynihan
David Robson, the author of The Intelligence Trap has taken a deep look at animal intelligence and he has some thoughts about being a non-human.
"Despite the kind of suffering that comes from our kind of existential angst, that's also accompanied by so many beautiful things about being human and [that] come directly from our awareness," Robson said.
"And, you know, a cow sitting in a field isn't going to be looking up at the stars and feeling that kind of awe and wonder and questioning… where we came from, like what happened at The Big Bang? Where are we going to? It is a bittersweet experience. But it's not something that I would want to sacrifice."
'Let the narwhals be'
Moynihan has some advice for humans who dream about living the life of another kind of animal.
"We should be suspicious when we're projecting our desires and wishes onto other animals, " he said.
"Because what we're often doing is we're actually just being self-obsessed and thinking about ourselves, and projecting our own ideas of what we are, and not allowing those animals to be themselves in their pure independence and autonomy as these other brilliant lifeways and forms of life.
"Being a narwhal is great. But let the narwhals be narwhals rather than vessels, for our own shame and strange complexes."
Guests in this episode:
Justin Gregg is an adjunct professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where he's also senior researcher with the Dolphin Communication Project. Gregg is the author of If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity.
Kristen Andrews is a professor of philosophy at York University and York Research Chair in Animal Minds.
Thomas Moynihan studies the history of ideas and is a researcher at Cambridge University's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.
Melanie Challenger is a bioethicist and a writer on environmental history and philosophy of biology. Her book is called How to Be Animal.
Susana Monsó is an assistant professor in the Department of Logic, History, and Philosophy of Science at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, in Madrid.
David Robson is a science writer and the author of The Intelligence Trap.
*This episode was produced by Howard Goldenthal.