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Is Human Intelligence a Gift or a Burden?

We understand mortality better. But how does that actually help?

Key points

  • Being called a "birdbrain" can be quite the compliment.
  • Human intelligence is an inferior evolutionary solution when compared to the kinds of intelligence we find in other species.
 By GDJ on Pixabay
Source: By GDJ on Pixabay

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Justin Gregg's new book If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity. When Hal Herzog recommended it to me and I saw the title, I was sure there was something wrong with his keyboard, but there wasn't.

Justin's easy-to-read, penetrating, and wide-ranging discussions of the downsides of our amazing brains and unique cognitive capacities are carefully thought out and made me revisit some of my own views about human exceptionalism. There's also a good deal of humor throughout his book "that softens the conclusion a bit," as aptly put by bestselling author Bill McKibben.

Here's what Justin had to say about his riveting and challenging book that likely will ruffle many feathers, or what's left of the hair on human naked apes.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal?

JG: I wrote the book to nudge people to re-think their ideas about the value of human intelligence. We often frame animal cognition as a less sophisticated version of human cognition and marvel when a non-human animal species behaves in a human-like way. The unspoken assumption is that the human way of thinking is the best way of thinking. This book argues that we need to not just challenge that assumption, but be ready to accept that human thinking might in fact be an inferior way of thinking in some cases.

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

JG: My primary fascination has always been the evolution of language, which is why I wound up studying animal communication. I have always wanted to know why language is unique to our species, and how this makes us human. This book tackles the problem of which cognitive abilities in the human mind truly make us exceptional (like language), but also attempts to determine if animals are worse off because they lack these abilities. In many or even most cases, animals are better off without these abilities.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

JG: This is a book not just for people interested in how animals think, but people who are questioning the nature (and value) of the human condition. The jumping-off point of the book is the difference between human and animal minds, but to explore this I write about a vast number of topics that are of interest to the general public, including the stock market, homophobia, pyramid schemes, Russian propaganda, 18th-century English landscaping, samurai codes, and others. Anyone curious about the question of what it means to be human should find something of interest.

Little, Brown, and Co. / With Permission.
Source: Little, Brown, and Co. / With Permission.

MB: What are some of your major messages?

JG: I look at several cognitive abilities that fall under the umbrella term of “intelligence,” and attempt to ferret out the extent to which these abilities are unique to humans and whether they are a blessing or a curse. I argue that many skills that we assume are unique to our species are in fact shared by other animals. But, more importantly, I show that for those skills that are truly unique to humans and form the bedrock of human-style intelligence, the jury is still out on whether these skills are doing us—and the planet—much good in the long run.

For example, humans have a unique understanding of death in that we understand our own mortality and the inevitability of our own deaths. But does this knowledge help us as a species? The ability to project yourself in far-future scenarios certainly gives us an advantage when planning our behavior. But a capacity to envision our own inevitable deaths—this death wisdom—doesn’t seem to provide us much evolutionary benefit. Or bring us much pleasure.

I discuss several cognitive abilities that are a double-edged sword like this, including our language ability, our ability to deceive others (and ourselves), our capacity for moral reasoning (which gives us the ability to rationalize genocide), and our ability for causal inference (which brings us the ability to create good things like vaccines and electricity, but also dangerous things like combustion engines and nuclear bombs).

I review many cognitive skills which seem at first glance to be exceptional and beneficial abilities but, upon deeper consideration, might in fact be problematic enough to bring about the eventual extinction of our species. Because of this, I argue that non-human animals often have superior ways of thinking about the world which generates behavior that is far less destructive to themselves and to the planet.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

JG: I make an argument in the book that you do not typically find in books on animal cognition: I argue that human intelligence is, in the long run, an inferior evolutionary solution when compared to the kinds of intelligence we find in other species.

There are many books about animal cognition that review the scientific literature and land on the conclusion that animals have much more going on in their minds than we typically believe. And this then leads to the argument that animals are worthy of respect because their minds resemble ours. But my argument is counterintuitive; I am saying that yes, animal minds are often human-like in their complexity but having a human-like mind is not necessarily good news. Human minds are fascinating insofar as they are complex and, in many cases, exceptional, but they are generating behavior that is both dangerous to the survival of the human species, and the planet’s ecosystems. Having a human mind might be a curse, not a blessing; an argument you don’t hear that often.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the amazing lives of other animals they will treat them with more respect and dignity?

JG: By not being overtly prescriptive when it comes to the question of how one should treat animals, I hope to passively persuade those skeptical of the usual rights and welfare arguments to think twice about squishing a spider, for example. If the book manages to convince just one person to alter their behavior when it comes to treating animals with respect, it will have been worth writing.

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In conversation with Dr. Justin Gregg. Justin received his PhD from the School of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin in Dublin Ireland in 2008 having studied dolphin social cognition. He is currently an Adjunct Professor at St. Francis Xavier University where he lectures on animal behavior and cognition, and a Senior Research Associate with the Dolphin Communication Project. Justin has a research focus in dolphin social cognition, and a background/interest in linguistics and the evolution of language. Originally from Vermont, Justin studied the echolocation abilities of wild dolphins in Japan and The Bahamas. He currently lives in rural Nova Scotia where he writes about science and contemplates the inner lives of the crows that live near his home.

Is Cultural Evolution Out-Running Our Brains? (Is cultural evolution going so fast we can't keep up cognitively or emotionally?)

Exploring a Fascinating Universe of Different Kinds of Minds.

Humans Aren't the Smartest Among Earth's Diverse Intelligences.

Why Being Called a "Birdbrain" Is Quite a Compliment.

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