Are We Uniquely Sapient?

Intelligence is a good thing, but we're not the only smart kids on the block.

Posted Oct 30, 2019

Ever since Descartes, scientists have been taught and have dutifully announced that animals aren’t capable of complex thought. Like Gertrude Stein’s famous observation about Oakland, those who deny animals any intellect or subjective mental life maintain, in effect, that “there isn’t any there there.” But the new field of “cognitive ethology” has been revealing astounding feats of animal intelligence strongly hinting at various degrees of consciousness.

Hold-outs keep insisting that no other living things have a mind quite like Homo sapiens, and in a literal sense, they are correct. But by the same token, no other living things have a skeleton quite like ours – but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have their own internal bones. Looking at parrots, crows, dogs, and chimpanzees—the species for which data are especially convincing, although they don’t exhaust the list—there is no doubt that other animals think differently from human beings, but the evidence is now irrefutable that they indeed think. And feel, and suffer.

Even before Descartes, people, at least in the West, prided themselves on being unique in the organic world, and not only in somehow possessing a divine spark. Other living things, it was widely assumed, didn’t only lack a soul, they also lacked our capacity for rational thought. Aristotle claimed that our use of reason distinguished us from all other animals—and, moreover, that by living “reasonably” we could achieve the greatest possible happiness. I’m not sure about the latter claim, but recent discoveries, including work on Alex the African gray parrot and several different remarkable studies on cognition in chimpanzees, crows, and dogs, have shown that these creatures are capable of intellectual feats that compare favorably with those of normal, healthy human beings. Thus, in the realm of intellectual accomplishment, our widespread species narcissism is rapidly being dispelled.

Let’s consider a subversive view of intelligence itself, memorably expressed by paleontologist Jack Sepkoski: “I see intelligence as just one of a variety of adaptations among tetrapods for survival. Running fast in a herd while being as dumb as shit, I think, is a very good adaptation for survival.” Seen through the eyes of evolution, intelligence isn’t necessarily that special. There are many ways to achieve biological success—i.e., adaptations for survival—of which intellect is merely one. Consider, for example, the capacity to deal with severe drought, extremely high or low temperatures, extremely acidic or alkaline conditions, and so forth. In short, you could be an extremophile, which would serve you much better than having a high IQ if you were faced with living in a subterranean vent or on a Himalayan snowfield 30,000 feet up.

Alternatively, what’s wrong with covering your body with a hard shell and outfitting yourself with a pair of impressive pinchers like a king crab, or being one of a hundred thousand non-reproductive, instinct-driven workers in an anthill, so long as the queen, your mother, makes lots of babies, thereby assuring your own reproductive success, by proxy?

A focus on intelligence may, therefore, be uncalled for—except if you happen to be a highly intelligent creature lacking extremophile adaptations, a hard shell, and powerful pinchers, or the ant colony’s companionate solace, and are attempting to use your intelligence to identify a reason why you are so extra-special. As Ecclesiastes reminds us: “Therefore the death of man, and of beasts is one, and the condition of them both is equal: as man dieth, so they also die: all things breathe alike, and man hath nothing more than beast: all things are subject to vanity.”

Few things better serve our species-wide vanity than an obsession with intelligence—or, to be more specific, with rationality. The resulting mantra is simple: Rewriting Hilaire Belloc’s jingoistic jingle, “Whatever happens, we have got/ rationality and they have not.” Belloc’s little rhyme celebrated not rationality but the Maxim gun, the first recoil-operated machine gun, invented by Hiram Stevens in 1883 and widely perceived to be the weapon most responsible for British imperial conquest. Rationality, it can be argued, was the weapon most responsible for humanity’s imperium over the planet Earth. We have it, and “they” don’t.

As it turns out, this is wrong, times two: First, many of “them” are actually capable of remarkable feats of high-quality intellectual accomplishment, and second, our own species isn’t nearly as rational as many of us like to think, or, when thought fails us, imagine.

There have been many efforts by Homo sapiens to distinguish themselves from other animals, giving rise to a long list of alternative taxonomic monikers. Here is just a partial list: H. absconditus (the inscrutable), H. adorans (the worshipper), H. aestheticus (the art appreciator), H. amans (the loving), H. avarus (the greedy), H. degeneratus (the degenerate), H. domesticus (the domesticated), Homo faber (the builder), H. economicus (the self-interested), H. ethicus (the ethical), H. faber (the tool-maker), H. generosus (the generous), H. imitans (the imitative), H. inermis (the helpless), H. investigans (the curious), H. loquens (the talker), H. loquax (the chatterer), H. ludens (the playful), H. mendax (the liar), H. necans (the killer), H. neophilus (the novelty-loving), H. patiens (the suffering), H. pictor (the artist), H. poetica (the poet), H. ridens (the laugher), H. reciprocans (the reciprocator), H. sentimentalis (the sentimental), H. socius (the sociable), H. technologicus (the technological), and H. viator (the pilgrim). It was Linnaeus, reflecting the 18th century Enlightenment fondness for rationality, who dubbed us H. sapiens (the wise), which—wisely or not—has been retained, if only as a testament to our continuing self-esteem when it comes to thinking about our thinking.

In some posts to follow, we’ll look at the claim that among living things, we are uniquely thoughtful. Spoiler alert: We aren’t. Moreover, not only aren't we unique in being uniquely thoughtful but in many ways, believe it or not, we aren't even all that thoughtful. 

Learn more in Dr. Barash's book, Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species As We Really Are.

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