Updated: Sep 19
We don’t have the monopoly on intelligence, even if we think we’re the best at it. It’s easy to forget that while surrounded by the conveniences of modern civilization.
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
The book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari opens with a humbling first chapter, stating that prehistoric humans “…were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish…” and as recent as 150 000 years ago, humans were still “…a mere blip on the ecological radar.”
He goes on to explain how the cognitive revolution and our unique language contributed to us jumping to the top of the food chain. Perhaps being referred to as an “animal of no significance” seems controversial since we’ve been talking about how great we are for millennia. Since no other animal has mastered our language, these opinions go unrefuted. Human centric views become ever deeply ingrained the more disconnected one is from nature, a subject I’ve covered before in An Irredeemable Monster and the Power of Dirt.
I don’t mean to downplay our ingenuity. Humans have conquered the world, and it wasn't because of our charm. We’re manipulative, entitled, self-important, lacking empathy, and fancy ourselves unique. We’re the narcissists of the animal kingdom. Truth is, we don’t have the monopoly on intelligence, even if we think we’re the best at it. It’s easy to forget that while being propped up by scientific discoveries and surrounded by the conveniences of modern civilization.
I’m reminded of my own human-centred viewpoint every time I’m awed by the intelligence of other animals. Adolescent chimpanzees outperformed humans on a memory task, showing that we too can be bested. There’s a border collie that understands 1022 words, problem-solving squirrels that defeat backyard obstacle courses, and a talking duck hilariously mimicking the insults from its keeper. Don’t even get me started about octopuses. Their intelligence developed independently from that of vertebrates and they were probably the first intelligent animals on earth.
Learning about smart animals can be both humbling and insightful. Until recently, humans were believed to be the only animals with true language, but even that is being questioned. Researcher Denise Herzing's Diverse Intelligences project is diving deep into that question, using artificial intelligence in an attempt to decode dolphin communication and determine whether they too have sophisticated language. If successful, we may one day speak to another species in their own language. Until then, we can endeavour to understand animals by appreciating their unique personalities.
That can be easier said than done.
I was talking to a kid recently who claimed to hate crows. Hate is a strong word, but this kid is not alone. I know many adults who harbour a deep hatred for this particular bird. Granted, crows can be jerks. I learned this first hand after pruning a large cherry tree in my yard. I didn’t cut it down. I merely pruned it enough so it didn’t scratch the car while pulling into the driveway. You’d think that birds who love shiny things would appreciate this. Instead, I woke the following morning to a car covered with bird droppings. I uttered a situationally appropriate expletive. Anger soon mixed with admiration. The sheer amount of feces was impressive. How many birds pitched in? They must have called in reinforcements. There was nothing above the car—no trees, no power lines, no eaves. Nothing. They flew over the car and took aim.
Despite the cherry tree incident, I love crows. They are among the smartest birds. They’re problem solvers. They use tools. They’ve been known to drop nuts on the road for cars to crack, then wait for the traffic light to change before collecting it. They recognize specific faces, and will spread the word about a person of interest to other crows. Get into a crow’s bad books, and you might find yourself hated by crows far and wide. They may be jerks, but they are smart jerks that exact revenge on those that wrong them (sound familiar?).
This is the spiel I gave the crow-hating kid. He seemed impressed; his opinion swayed. I learned my lesson, too. Before cutting down some deteriorating birch trees frequented by my neighbourhood crows, I prepared for it. For months, my daughters and I left out a peace offering of unshelled peanuts and shiny things. Eventually, the crows voiced a distinctive caw when they saw us. I took this to mean we had won their favour. The trees came down with an audience, and without incident.
One final thought.
Something struck me about this list of the Top 10 Smartest Animals, aside from the fact that Homo sapiens didn’t make the cut. Rat, pigeon, squirrel, crow—all these animals are widely regarded as pests. In fact, pigs, elephants, orangutans, and dolphins are also an annoyance to those that compete with them for resources. Perhaps it’s their ability to outsmart us that makes them so bothersome.
Is peskiness the litmus test for intelligence?
It’s a rhetorical question that might lend a sense of comedic admiration to those rare times when you (or your car) become the target of animal ingenuity.
What amazing animal behaviour impresses you? Have you resolved a conflict with an animal by learning more about them?