Intelligence, Evolved

intelligenceinnatureAnyone who has looked into the eyes of a cat or dog can have little doubt that they think. What exactly they think is, of course, a matter of conjecture. I had been meaning to read Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature for a few years now. We are taught at a young age to eschew anthropomorphism—although our eschewers don’t use that word—as the childish way of perceiving the world. Animals don’t think because that’s reserved for people. We sit in the finest spots in the poshest corners of the animal kingdom and the sign says “No Dogs Allowed.” I never really outgrew this child-like belief because the minimal scientific evidence I’ve been able to infer supports the idea that like us, other animals think. Narby, an anthropologist, agrees. At least to a point. I don’t wish to make claims for Dr. Narby that he wouldn’t support, but he provides fascinating empirical evidence, “down” to the level of amebas and plants, that indicates intentionality. Nature is alive with thought.

As an anthropologist, Narby begins his consideration with the insights of shamans. Although scientists rarely countenance shamans, they are among the earliest of human religious specialists and they have long promoted the idea that humans are fully integrated into nature. We are not separate and above. From our brains to our bones, we are one with the natural world. If we think, should not animals think? Interestingly, this idea brings Narby into some of the same territory as Thomas Nagel; intelligence may be a cumulative process. Our brains’ ability to think may be the result of collecting together the thought processes of our fellow creatures to a point where our thinking becomes abstract. We’re told that dolphins and whales don’t think like us—they don’t build cities, do they? Maybe it’s because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs. Maybe it’s because they’re smarter than we are.

There are, it seems, many thinkers on the outside of the hallowed confines of hard science that are chipping away at the strict materialist edifice. There can be no serious question that the empirical method explains much of what we experience in the universe. It has always amazed me, however, that we assume that humans are able to find the outer limits of existence with our limited senses. We know animals can see, hear, smell, taste, and maybe even feel in ways beyond our capabilities. Who’s to say that there isn’t other input well beyond our limited senses that we use to survive in this environment? After all, we didn’t evolve to know everything—we evolved to be able to thrive in our ecosystems. For that you don’t need all the answers—just enough to get by. If you doubt my reasoning here, I suggest you ask your dog or cat.

One response to “Intelligence, Evolved

  1. I suspect that the trouble is that animals don’t think ‘like us’. I’ve known seminarians and fellow priests who don’t think ‘like me’, but Christian charity demands that the assumption that they are at least thinking.

    I love our puppy, but she’s an idiot. I can almost see the thought processes going on, and I know she’s thinking about some things, but when it comes to higher reasoning, there’s probably not much going on. Other species show signs of greater intelligence, such as problem-solving skills, but the jury is still out as to whether they’re capable of something as sophisticated as existential angst. Plus there are plenty of anecdotes of behaviours that are assumed to be animal emotions that are in fact due to much simpler causes. Even on a human level, we might have a hard time clearly defining ‘rational thought’ as opposed to ‘stimulus/response’.

    If some animal Shylock were to ask ‘Hath not an animal eyes? Hath not an animal hands, organs, etc… If you prick us, do we not bleed…?’ My honest answer would have to be ‘Damned if *I* know! I’m still trying to figure out anyone but myself: a seminarian, to say nothing of a Jew!’

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