Beyond Words: Animal Intelligence
Do we conveniently underestimate non-human animals so we can exploit them?
I’ve just finished reading Carl Safina’s wonderful and eye-opening book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. It has left me in no doubt that elephants, wolves, and orcas (aka killer whales — but rest assured, they have never killed a human) have complex emotional and social lives. Chances are, many other creatures do too.
And yet, when we look at how cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, and other livestock are often treated, the evidence would suggest we still live with the legacy of Descartes’ view that animals are mindless automata without any thoughts or feelings.
Is this a belief of convenience, that allows us to guiltlessly exploit animals for our own benefit?
In the book, Carl hangs out with researchers who have been watching elephants, wolves, and whales for decades, getting to know them as individuals, families, and groups. Their intelligence — deductive, social and emotional — is evident, as is the fragility of their survival. Do please read the whole book, but I’ve included some choice excerpts at the bottom of this blog post (beneath “Other Stuff”).
Laced throughout the book, between the beautiful stories of animal intelligence, are warnings about the tragic disregard humans have for these amazing creatures — another way in which we attempt to dominate the Earth, possibly for short-term gain or profit, but inevitably to our long-term detriment. When will we realise that all life is interconnected, and when we damage one part of the web, we impoverish ourselves?
“For centuries, the fact that other animals don’t converse the way humans do has been interpreted as evidence of empty minds. Of course, that helps justify what we do to them. If they can’t think, there’s no need to care what they think… Darwin jotted in his notebook this searing one-liner: ‘Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equal.’”
Will future generations look back at the early 21stcentury, and feel the same sense of revulsion at the way we treat animals that we experience when we contemplate slavery?
What we do to wild animals is the same as what we do to each other. (White) humans have a long and shameful history of designating some groups “less than”, with those in power always putting themselves at the top. Carl Linnaeus, who created the classification system for living organisms, identified four human races, with crude characterisations of each. In 1777, Immanuel Kant created a hierarchy of races, Whites at the top, Blacks at the bottom. I don’t care to repeat the details of their racist views, but you can read more here.
This was a belief of convenience that enabled the enslavement, exploitation, degradation, abuse and murder of non-Europeans, particularly Blacks, for centuries. People who had a different colour skin, spoke a different language, dressed differently, had a different culture were deliberately cast as inferior for no reason other than that they weren’t white Europeans. For too long, the dominant group has equated “other” with “inferior”. White-skinned beings do it to Black- or Brown-skinned beings, and human beings do it to non-human beings.
To return to our non-human brethren, I’m not saying we shouldn’t keep and kill livestock (although I have many friends who might say that), nor that we should set them all free. We have domesticated these creatures to meet our needs — cows to produce more milk, sheep to produce more wool, pigs to be heavier, chickens to grow unnaturally fast. They haven’t been bred to do well in the wild.
Rather, I am saying that we should treat them respectfully, and as humanely as possible. Heck, maybe we could even treat each other that way too.
I’m reminded of the indigenous concept of the honourable harvest, which reads a lot like common sense:
Ask permission of the ones whose lives you seek. Abide by the answer. Never take the first. Never take the last. Harvest in a way that minimizes harm. Take only what you need and leave some for others. Use everything that you take. Take only that which is given to you. Share it, as the Earth has shared with you. Be grateful. Reciprocate the gift. Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last forever.
I have a couple of public speaking events coming up — tickets available via the links below. I don’t do public events very often, so I hope you’ll grab this rare chance!
Friday 27thMay: Solitude, Sustainability, and Systems Thinking: Rowing 3 Oceans for Change (UK, near Southampton)
Thursday 9th-Friday 10thJune: Fifteen Seconds Festival (Graz, Austria): Riding the Waves of Change
PROMO CODE! 10 free festival passes available if you enter FSF22-FV6P3RUU at checkout
My talk description: Change is happening fast, and the face of the wave is only going to get steeper. Record-setting ocean rower Roz Savage shares insights on how to embrace apparent chaos as a catalyst for evolution. Drawing on her ocean adventures, she offers thoughts on how we can surrender to the wave, stop trying to control the uncontrollable, and instead maintain our balance and focus as we accelerate into an excitingly unpredictable future.
Quotes from Beyond Words, by Carl Safina
“Intelligent, social, emotional, personable, imitative, respectful of ancestors, playful, self-aware, compassionate-these are qualities that would gain most of us membership to an exclusive club,” wrote Cynthia Moss along with Joyce Poole and several colleagues. “They also describe elephants.”
“…an elephant isn’t just flesh; it is a deep store of knowledge needed for survival. All it takes for that kind of knowledge to continue succeeding is for the world not to change too much over the decades of a life. And for many thousands of years, that worked. However, elder matriarchs’ big tusks make them poachers’ preferred targets.”
“an elephant’s chance of being killed by a human is greater than their risk of death from any other cause.”
“Modernity’s self-imposed exile from the world seems to have degraded an older human ability to recognize the minds in other animals. Yet it can seem that other animals recognize human minds.”
“The oft-repeated line “Humans are rational beings” is probably our most half-true assertion about ourselves. There is in nature an overriding sanity and often, in humankind, an undermining insanity. We, among all animals, are most frequently irrational, distortional, delusional, worried… Perhaps believing false things comes bundled with our peculiar, oddly brilliant ability to envision what is not yet, and to imagine a better world… It’s not rationality that’s uniquely human; it’s irrationality. It’s the crucial ability to envision what is not, and to pursue unreasonable ideas.”
“What we’re really saying is “Please tell us a story that distances us from all other life.” Why? Because we desperately need to believe we are not just unique-as all species are-but that we are so very special, that we are resplendent, transcendent, translucent, divinely inspired, weightlessly imbued with eternal souls. Anything less induces dread and existential panic.”
“Twenty-five million years before today, dolphins were firmly in possession of our solar system’s brightest brain. In many ways it would be nice if they still were. When dolphins were the planet’s brain leaders, the world didn’t have any political, religious, ethnic, or environmental problems. Creating problems seems to be one of the things that “make us human.”
“Personality is probably the most underrecognized aspect of free-living creatures. Dolphins have personality galore. They’re born with personalities. Shy. Bold. Rambunctious. Bullying…. It’s not personality; it’s individuality. And it’s a fact of life. And it runs deep. Very deep.”
“Why do we continue to expect living things to be so incapable? Before we existed, they were already on the job. We so vastly underestimate them. We impose a self-isolation that deprives ourselves of experiencing so much of the world’s persona.”
“We are all so similar under the skin. Four limbs, the same bones, the same organs, the same origins, and lots of shared history. And between first breath and final gasp, we endeavor toward a common quest: to live, to raise our young, to find space enough for our lives, to survive the confronting dangers, to do what it takes, to the best of our abilities, to live out the mystery and opportunity of finding ourselves somehow in existence.”
“All the animals that human parents paint on nursery room walls, all the creatures depicted in paintings of Noah’s ark, are actually in mortal trouble now. Their flood is us.”
“if we treated animals as they deserve, human inhumanity to humans would stand out all the more appallingly. We might then turn our attention to the next step beyond human civilization: humane civilization. Justice for all.”
“Our species best understands the world yet has the worst relationship with it.”
“We see the whole universe through a human lens. The harder step is to get outside ourselves, look back at where and how we live. There is no better prayer to morning than to feel glad to know: the greatest story is that all life is one.”
Originally published at https://www.rozsavage.com on May 5, 2022.