Underestimating Animal Intelligence

activist, author, former political prisoner

Alex with his captor, Dr. Irene Pepperberg

Paul Pinfield
May 2, 2018

    It’s often said you should fight only those battles you have a chance of winning. Some have dedicated themselves to a battle, the chance of our ever winning I’m forced, yet again today, to question.

    The war.. against the oppression and suffering of the similarly sensate creatures with whom we “share” this small planet.

    My doubts, as follows..

    Poking about this am in one of the hell holes that seem determined to flourish where time is at a premium and a certain carelessness and disrespect for paper prevails, I came across a copy of that icon of the coffee table, The National Geographic, ( borrowed, and as yet un returned, I’m afraid!). Although dating from a few years back i see little that has changed significantly since its publication. My attention was drawn to the lead article “Inside Animal Minds”, and the cover photo of a beautiful Border Collie.

    The article comprises essentially ten or so pieces, each highlighting one or two particular species, and recent ‘discoveries’ about their abilities, cognition and so forth. Elephants that know the mirror’s image is of themselves; Bonobo who sign many English words; Dolphins that invent new display.. and much more. Fancy and innovative tests done by qualified scientists researching other species to reveal how smart they are compared to humans. Don’t get me wrong, if you find yourself short of particle accelerators or a new heart valve humans are undoubtedly the Business, but if leaving a legacy to those who come after better than the one left to you by those who went before is your thing, you might want to look elsewhere, and given that other Animals don’t generally seem hell bent on the total destruction of what supports them I think we can safely ignore the nonsensical notion of qualifying who’s “smartest”. However logic does suggest that an increased understanding of Similarly Sensate beings might lead to a little more respect for them, and more humane treatment of them, which make this undeniably something worthy of our pursuit.

    Without exception the work outlined in the article was done with Animals compromised under conditions of incarceration or territorial invasion. Not one instance of humans doing the compromising to accommodate the Animal’s needs or disposition. Even deep immersion in the wild usually seems to take Tolerance for Acceptance, and they are not the same thing at all. But this is the world of Fellowships and funding, the publishing of papers, status, kudos and ego.
The article goes on to criticise the experience of the domestic pet ‘owner’ as unscientific, but though in the above terms this is true, should we overlook it? I don’t think so.

    The relationship between say, an intelligent and engaged Dog owner and their charge is one of the few areas in human relationships that have no external agenda, and where ego doesn’t rule. Who amongst our pets gives a damn if you got a PhD or a boob job? Many committed humans are instinctively aware of the inner workings of their companion’s brain, but if it can’t be authenticated by experimental evidence and backed up by peer review, it can’t possibly be so. We’ve become so dependent on “science as truth”, or been so indoctrinated to believe it so, that we now discredit even the blindingly obvious if it refuses to lock into that paradigm.

    The experience of my partner and I, living ten years in intimate proximity with many wild species, by concensus, in circumstances of complete freedom, in their habitat, offering support without domination or imposition, suggests that their behaviour is very unlikely to be ‘natural’ under any other observational regime. The “science” is, to our minds at least, questionable from the get-go.

    Equally, consideration of the Similarly Sensate solely from our own frame of sensory reference.. effectively asking them to learn English.. is both arrogant and lacking in probity. As the most intelligent thing around, by our own admission (promotion!), one might be forgiven for thinking we would take on this intercommunicational challenge ourselves, at least on level ground, if not by looking at their skill sets and trying doing it their way…learning Bonobo, perhaps, rather than teaching Kanzi to sign English words.

    Always.. how are they, to us.. never how are we, to them.

    And herein lies the point.. by trying to find out what they can do in relation to us, rather than what we can, in relation to them.. by insisting they fall in with our methodology, rather than the reciprocal, and by limiting our investigation and outlook to only what lies within our comfort zone, omitting for instance abilities and capacities that threaten our own too closely, the best we can reasonably expect to discover is who of them thinks most like we do. In other words, which other species are most likely to fuck things up the way we seem to! Is this the best we can do? Sadly, It seems so.

    Humans look down, from above, ask the wrong questions and draw irrelevant conclusions. It doesn’t matter who’s “smartest”, because Smart relates only to which hilltop you’re taking in the view from. For our relationships with Others to serve us all, and for them to be just and compassionate, we must also go down into the valleys, and look up, and all about, at the close and the far away, and from all our perspectives. This, we still stubbornly refuse to do.

    The piece in the article that hit me hardest was about and African Grey Parrot, Alex. Thirty years of close (incarcerated) contact with his human researcher had resulted in Alex having learned various human skills, including mimicking many English words, including numbers. On his death at age 31, science was delighted to acknowledged his latest achievement.. Alex had just mastered the word “seven”! The segment concluded by recalling Alex saying some time earlier “Wanna go tree”. Though having spent his whole life in captivity, mostly in a lab..”windowless, about the size of a boxcar”, Alex clearly knew where he belonged, and didn’t. He was duly taken along the corridor to where a large window framed a lovely Elm.. he got to look at it. ~


Paul Pinfield currently lives in Panama with his partner; they are both vegan. He works to rescue and rehab wildlife and enjoys seeing them in the little bit of natural habitat they have left, not yet destroyed by humans.


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