What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity

The German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was, by all accounts, a miserable human being. He famously sought meaning through suffering, which he experienced in abundance throughout his life. Nietzsche struggled with depression, suicidal thoughts and hallucinations, and when he was 44 – around the height of his philosophical output – he suffered a nervous breakdown. He was committed to a mental hospital and never recovered.

Although Nietzsche himself hated fascism and anti-Semitism, his right-wing sister reformulated her brother’s philosophy after his death in 1900 as a justification for the subjugation of people the fascists saw as weak, contributing to the moral foundation of the Nazi Party and justification for the Holocaust.

Would Nietzsche have been happier—and would the world in general have been a better place—if the philosopher had been born as a species other than man? On its face, it sounds like an absurd question. But in “If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals about Human Stupidity,« the scientist Justin Gregg convincingly argues that the answer is yes – and not just for Nietzsche, but for all of us. “Human cognition and animal cognition are not so different, but where human cognition is more complex, it does not always produce a better result,” writes Gregg. Animals do just fine without it and, as the book jacket says, “miraculously, their success comes without the added baggage of destroying themselves and the planet in the process.”


Gregg – who has a PhD from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Psychology, teaches at St. Francis Xavier University, and has researched the social cognition of dolphins – recognizes that human history is marked by incredible breakthroughs that depend on our intelligence. Yet non-human animals do not need human-level intelligence to survive and be evolutionarily successful, as Gregg points out, which is why this trait is not more widespread across species.

He builds his often hilarious, sometimes disturbing, case against human superiority across seven chapters. Each one deals with a unique aspect of our psyche—from our ability to imagine our own mortality to our ability to communicate on “a limitless range of subjects”—and provides ample evidence that these mental properties are not are only unnecessary for survival, they are often more of a liability than a gift.

Our species stands out above all, Gregg begins, for our tendency to ask “Why?” “Of all the things that fall under the glittering umbrella of human intelligence, our understanding of cause and effect is the wellspring from which everything else springs,” writes Gregg. “Why” questions arguably spurred innovations such as agriculture (“What makes seeds germinate?”), fields of study such as astronomy (“Why is that star always in the same place every spring?”), and the rise of religion and philosophy ( “Why am I here? And why must I die?”).

However, asking “why” is not necessary for success on either an individual or evolutionary scale, Gregg writes. Other species presumably flourish without it, and many have arrived at similar life hacks to humans, but without seeking a deep understanding of causation. Chimpanzees, birds and elephants know how to self-medicate with, for example, plants, clay and bark. They don’t need to know why these remedies work, Gregg writes, only that they do.

For all the good ones ask “why?” has made us, Gregg argues, it has also had negative consequences, by justifying biases such as racism (“Why do people from different parts of the world look different?”) and, as he writes, by leading us to create technologies, that can threaten to destroy us – internal combustion engines, for example. The solution to climate change and other existential threats that we have created for ourselves, Gregg points out, will come from the same why-based thinking system that led to these problems in the first place. “However, it is an open question whether a solution will come in time, or whether our why specialist nature has doomed us all,” he writes.

Our obsession with morality—“not just that we ought to behave in a certain way, but Why we should,” as Gregg puts it—has also generated untold amounts of suffering. Norms that dictate how one should and should not behave in one’s social world are found throughout the animal kingdom. Chickens have e.g. pecking order, but they don’t ponder whether that system is fair or just, Gregg points out. On the other hand, some species have sensitivity to social inequality. In a famous experiment, scientists offered Lance and Winter, two capuchin monkeys in side-by-side cages, different rewards for performing the same task. Winter got a grape (a preferred treat) and Lance got a slice of cucumber. As Gregg tells it, when Lance saw Winter repeatedly receive a grape for the task, she violently threw the cucumber back at the scientists, banging on her cage. “This is evidence that Lance felt it was unfair that she received the smaller food reward for the same task,” Gregg writes. “Lance responded to the violation of a standard of reasonableness.”

But people take such social norms to extremes, Gregg argues. We try to enforce universal standards of “right” and “wrong” and invent elaborate justifications, monitoring systems, and punishments to ensure that others follow these made-up rules. A major problem with morals, however, is that they are subjective and can easily lead to the justification of one demographic or cultural group’s oppression of another. From 1883 to 1996, Gregg writes, 150,000 First Nations children in Canada were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to residential schools, where they were subjected to abuse, trauma, cultural genocide and even death. The prime minister under whom the atrocities began viewed forced assimilation as a “moral imperative, the best solution for bringing native children into line with modern Western values,” Gregg writes.

Moral reasons have been used to condone the persecution of minority groups; rationalize genocide; and advocating the extermination of entire cities, including by dropping atomic bombs: “The history of our species is the history of the moral justification of acts of violence that result in pain, suffering, and death for billions of our fellow human beings who fall into the category of ‘other things’.” This contrasts with all other species, Gregg continues, which lack “the cognitive capacity to systematically kill entire subsets of their conspecific populations as a result of a formal claim to moral authority.”

Humans may therefore succeed not because of, but in spite of, our moral fitness, he writes, after taking the social norms that govern and constrain social behavior in most species to self-destructive lengths.

But the most damning chapter in the book—and my favorite—concerns a particular brand of cognitive dissonance that Gregg calls prognostic myopia, or “the human ability to think about and change the future combined with an inability to actually care that much about what happens. in the future.” This happens all the time on an individual level. Prognostic myopia is at play, for example, when you decide to stay up late drinking with friends, knowing that you have to be up early the next morning. The consequences of that decision do not fully hit until the next morning, when the alarm goes off and the hangover begins. This is because our brains, like those of other animals, are wired to primarily deal with the here and now.

The real problem, however, is that unlike other species, “our decisions can generate technologies that will have harmful effects on the world for generations to come,” Gregg writes. Spread across billions of people and combined with modern technologies, our tendency to live in the present today condemns future generations and the world as a whole to increasingly dire prospects with each passing year. According to the Global Challenges Foundation, in 2016 there was a 9.5 percent chance that humans will become extinct within the next 100 years. And even if we survive, we are looking at a potential warming of 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, on a scale that “will render most of the planet uninhabitable,” Gregg maintains. Yet we seem to lack the political will to prevent this from happening, he adds, because “the further into the future we get, the less we care.”

As Gregg points out, “It is the greatest of paradoxes that we should have an exceptional mind that seems hell-bent on destroying itself.”

But evolutionarily speaking, our slide towards extinction is not outside the norm. Countless species have come and gone since life began on the planet some 3.7 billion years ago. As Gregg writes, “Our many intellectual achievements are currently on track to produce our own extinction, which is exactly how evolution gets rid of adaptations that suck.”

This article was originally published on Darkness. Read original article Top photo: Narwhal, White whale and Rorqual from Johnson’s Household Book of Nature (1880) by John Karst (1836-1922)/Rawpixel, Ltd.

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