Last month here in Portland, Oregon, we had our 6th annual VegFest, a fabulous feast of food, speakers, chef demonstrations, kids’activities and more. I was fortunate to hear several terrific talks, including one about animal intelligence. It was one of my favorite talks, and the speaker, Rae, addressed 4 important elements in considering our understanding of animals and their intelligence.
1. Yes they can – One of the points made was that those characteristics and qualities that we use to construct the tall pedestal we put ourselves on are also true for animals. They build, have families, communicate, display emotions (and, if you agree with the premise of Marc Bekoff’s book, Wild Justice, some species have a strong sense of right and wrong), and may even have spiritual experiences.
2. Uncover the myths – There are a host of myths that we humans perpetuate and believe about animals without bothering to investigate their veracity. For example, most people think chickens are stupid. How many of us have actually met chickens and interacted with them? Rae told a story about an experiment that has been repeated many times, in which a chicken is given both chicken eggs and duck eggs to care for. The gist of the results: she raises the ducks as ducks and the chicks as chickens. Several scientists who have worked with chickens have emphasized their intelligence. In 1995, Dr. Lesley Rogers, a Professor of Zoology said, "[It] is now clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates." And Dr. Chris Evans, a Professor of Psychology said that he often lists the attributes of chickens (without mentioning chickens) "...and people think I'm talking about monkeys."
3. The test is wrong - When humans measure the intelligence of animals, they usually use a paradigm based on the human understanding of the world. For example, many species have been subjected to the "red dot" experiment, in which a red dot is place on the front of their heads and the animal is put in front of a mirror. If the animal can recognize that the dot is on them, they're considered likely to be self-aware. But what if we humans were subjected to experiments that, to other species, seemed easy-peasy, but for us where very challenging or impossible. Rae gave the example of bats telling us: "All you have to do is go to a field and, in complete darkness, run from one end to the other really fast without tripping over anything." Of course, we couldn't do it.
4. You can’t communicate when you don’t understand the language or the culture - Not only do many humans consider animals lacking in intelligence, but people of certain ethnic and geographic backgrounds often make judgments about the intelligence of people of other ethnic and geographic backgrounds, because they don't understand the language or the culture. We can't evaluate another being's intelligence without sharing a common framework and having at least a basic understanding of how and what he communicates.
As Rae said in her talk, although intelligence isn't a measure of worth, it's often a criteria we use to judge non-humans as inferior, and thus give ourselves free license to abuse and exploit them. Although we shouldn't use intelligence as a measure of how we treat other animals, we need to recognize that they have special skills, reasoning and knowledge that, while it might not help them score well on the SATs, does require that we rethink our relationship with other beings.
Like our blog? Please share it with others, comment, and/or subscribe to our RSS feed.