On a certain British radio station, there’s an ongoing feature where various people try to work out what makes us human. The implication, of course, is that we humans are somehow special, set apart from the other sentient beings we share our planet with.
Unsurprisingly, no-one has yet been able to come up with a definitive answer as to what this is. Some of the suggestions proposed so far have been fundamentally flawed. For instance, one person implied that imagination was unique to humans, when this has been shown not to be the case.
The truth is, we are animals, and we have a lot more in common with other animals than we’d like to believe. Science now recognises what animal lovers have always known – non-human animals feel the same emotions as we do, including joy, fear, and loneliness. There’s evidence that some species laugh, cry, and suffer from depression. They are not machines, driven only by instinct.
Our intelligence is commonly cited as something that sets us apart from other animals. It’s true that dogs don’t write symphonies, and fish don’t design buildings. It’s also true that animals have lower IQs than the majority of humans. However, this misses the point; we try to measure other animals’ intelligence by human standards, but they are optimised for different purposes than we are. Intelligence is subjective.
For example, most species haven’t evolved to use tools, but this is likely because they haven’t needed to. Most have ‘tools’ built in, in the form of claws, powerful teeth, heightened senses, the ability to secrete venom and so on. They are perfectly adapted for their environments. Trying to assess whether one species is more intelligent than another is thus misguided.
In fact, most non-human animals have skills that we lack. We can’t migrate thousands of miles and find our way home again without a single map or compass. We can’t echo-locate (at least, most of us can’t) and we don’t have built-in sonar. Without our tools, we’d be pretty helpless.
As discussed in this excellent essay, the cetacean brain is in fact far more developed than the human brain even by our own standards. Whale and dolphin brains have four lobes, more than any other creature on Earth. They have been evolving longer than we have, and may be much more ‘intelligent’ than we are.
Cetaceans’ abilities are astounding; for example, they can see into each other’s bodies using echo-location. They also have extremely complex languages; because they can perceive sound so rapidly, they can communicate an extraordinary amount with a single sound. I highly recommend reading the full essay for more detail.
Most of us think of Earth as a planet populated by humans, viewing our fellow creatures as little more than a sidenote. We talk about searching the universe for other intelligent life, without considering that it may have been living alongside us all along. Though we think of ourselves as an advanced species, we destroy our planet and needlessly slaughter billions of other beings every year.
Despite our ‘intelligence’, our societies are fraught with problems which are nonexistent in wild animals – mental illnesses, drug dependencies and corruption to name but a few. In many cultures, we eat unnatural foods which lead us to develop heart disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and numerous other illnesses. We make things even worse for ourselves by not exercising. There is no other species which does these things (with the exception of some pets and captive animals, who are under our control). As a sidenote, I don’t believe individual people are to blame for this; it’s a fault of our society as a whole.
Even if we do believe ourselves to be more intelligent than other species, does that make us more important or special? Few would argue that humans with learning disabilities are less important than those without.
In the past, men have claimed that women have inferior intelligence as a justification for oppressing them. Similarly, white people used to claim that black people were less intelligent in an attempt to justify enslaving them. These claims are now rightly recognised as absurd, but they demonstrate that correlating intelligence with importance is a dangerous path to go down.
So why is it that we’re so desperate to believe we’re unique? Perhaps it’s because accepting that we aren’t special would mean radically changing our attitudes towards other animals. If we’re no more important than they are, how can we justify killing, mutilating, confining and experimenting on them?
This is something most of us would rather avoid thinking about, so we cling onto delusions of superiority which enable us to suppress the guilt we feel. Maybe that’s why we have a morbid fascination with the idea of being abducted and experimented on by aliens – we’re horrified at the thought of being treated the way we treat other creatures.
The rationale for human superiority simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s time for a shift in the way we view our fellow creatures, and this means extending our compassion to them as well as to each other. If we turn a blind eye, they will continue to be abused. If we refuse to condone their exploitation, things will change. Which will you choose?