The main objection that scientists and rationalists make to the idea of communicating more meaningfully with animals than most people normally do with their dogs, cats and horses is that the animals are not intelligent enough. They claim to know that animals’ brains are simply not specialised for complex thought and they have no brain centres specifically designed for the use of language. This objection rests on two assumptions: that intelligence is proportional to the size and complexity of the brain and that the communication of complex ideas is only possible between beings with human-like (cerebral) intelligence.
But both these assumptions have been challenged in recent research into animal intelligence, surprisingly, in research relating to animals with very simple brains or no brains at all. Echidnas have exhibited extraordinary intelligence in tests devised by animal behaviourists, although their brains are very simple. Many stories are told about octopus intelligence for which no scientific explanation can be given.
Kangaroos also show intelligence – reasoning, memory and rapid learning ability – about the same as a dog, but they too have very small, simple brains for their body weight and so are not given credit for it – except by people who live with them in close contact (they are excellent foster children, intelligent, humorous and affectionate, and very respectful).
People who work and live in close association with animals such as cats, dogs, horses, sheep, cows, elephants, seals and goats do not doubt that the intelligence of their animals is much higher than present day science can account for. Whales and dolphins with their brains rivalling human brains in terms of size in proportion to their body weight and degree of convolutedness are admitted to be highly intelligent, but it is clear to anyone observing them that they use their brains in quite different, non-human ways until called upon by natural or artificial circumstances to become intelligible to human beings.
Understanding this is the key to understanding what limits human ability to see into and appreciate the intelligence of other animals. What we must understand is that human intelligence tends to be fairly narrowly focused on human affairs, is species-specific and conditioned by nature and experience to block most of the multitudes of vast spectra of event and effect that constitutes the fabric of reality. Human intelligence makes manifest to humans that selection of sensation and inspiration that combine to make our awareness. It is vast and rich to us but tiny in comparison with the infinitudes of data in our environment, mediated as it must be through the limited array of logistical acrobatics that make up human intellect.
A death-adder must be assumed to have intelligence which makes manifest to a death-adder the tiny selection of sensation and inspiration and the limited array of logistical acrobatics that make up death-adder intelligence. The human body is designed to support an intelligence system that is tightly and complexly logical in very specific ways, and that necessitates a large much convoluted brain. A reptile’s body is among other things an intelligence system that operates in ways our intelligence does not yet give us much insight into, but there is no reason to suppose that it is more limited that ours. We are evolving specialised organs of thought which are located in our brains, and we’re enchanted by what’s going on there. Unencumbered by such a noisy apparatus, do other animals make all their sensations selectively more intelligible to themselves through their whole bodies, or through organs we haven’t yet understood, than we do ours, selected out as most of them are by the self-enchanted activities of our brains? Cerebral intelligence in humans, intelligence beyond out ken in death adders?
I mention death adders because they seem very intelligent. They watch knowingly while being taunted, and knowing how deadly their venom is, they act morally – until pushed beyond endurance they refuse to strike!
Any animal, human or not, can be seen as an individual, as a member of a culture or society – herd, tribe, localised population etc, and many societies make up a species. A multitude of diverse species make up our planet’s biota, plant and animal. Event-sensitive beings (and even atoms are event-sensitive) are the experiential and intellectual resources of our planet, and are therefore as diversely specialised for as wide and yet specific a variety of experiential selection-making as is necessary to constitute a planetary intelligence far greater than that of any one of its components and no doubt greater in toto even than the sum of its components.
Ant colonies are examples of animals in which radically specialised individuals are inter-dependent in such a way that the colony behaves like a single animal made up of several hundred or more semi-individuals whose actions are concerted by the queen who is entirely dependent on them. Humans too can be seen in this way, although their socialisation is much more apparently complex and flexible. The experience we mediate for the planet as individuals is mediated to her also by our cultures as a whole although it isn’t easy for us to discern this as we are inside it. Our planet thinks, feels, dreams and experiences as much and as effectively through her jungles and buffalo herds as she does through her cities – in vastly different ways, but neither is more intelligent than the other.
We can communicate effectively with animals only to the extent that our experiential selections overlap with theirs. Look at the diagram. The blue represents an unknown ‘quantity’. So does the yellow. They may or may be equal. The point is, we don’t know.
If the overlap is small, we must question the arrogance that says that the other animal’s intelligence always only extends as far as the green zone above and ignores the inevitability of there being a blue zone for the animal probably at least equal to our yellow one – and also the arrogance that says that there is only one -way learning happening across the interface – that is, that the other animal’s intelligence has been passively extended by communing with ours, while ours has nothing to gain from their ‘inferior’ minds.
When we transcend this speciesism, we can begin to look for the animal’s intentions to communicate with us, no longer imagining that all the intention is ours, the animal being passively receptive and responsive or not to our teaching. In their terms, we become a lot more intelligent!