We’re so vain – thoughts on intelligence

Another comment that often appears amongst the arsenal of tired old excuses that humans cling to in their attempts to justify the use of members of other species, centres around presumptions of superior intelligence when compared with every other species on the planet. When asked to provide examples, reference is sometimes made to landmarks of human endeavour such as writing symphonies, great works of literature, major inventions through the ages, and travelling to the moon, amongst others.

Well yes. These are indeed breathtaking achievements, but let’s just stop for a moment and get a grip on reality. Given that we, as a species, currently number over 7.8 billion individuals, there are relatively few humans whose names ring out across the centuries as beacons of intellectual prowess. Da Vinci, Archimedes, Newton, Tesla, Hawking and several others are names that stand out. For the rest of us – the vast majority, that is – no one is ever going to wax lyrical about our towering accomplishments.

What actually is intelligence?

Most of us are simply ordinary people, even though we are surrounded by technological marvels. Our expertise extends to knowing where the ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches are. If one of us were to be left somewhere with no tools or weapons, no instructions, no raw materials and no access to Google, I suspect that no one would ever be able to invent and create a computer for themselves, or write a symphony, or travel to the moon, and rocket scientists would not need to open their ranks to any newcomers. In fact many if not most of us would be seriously challenged to create some form of shelter or find something to eat without a handy supermarket.

To quote Isaac Newton in a letter in 1676:

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Although this is similar to a phrase used by the 12th century John of Salisbury, it may even pre-date him as he was known to have adapted and refined the work of others.  Which really serves to illustrate the point that as humans, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and the majority of us would never have attained the comforts and wonders that surround us, had it not been for the accumulated efforts of others. Thus, for us to claim some level of superior intelligence based on the achievements of the intellectual giants of our species could not even be called tenuous. It’s actually laughable.

So what about ordinary people like me?

So what about just general, common-or-garden intelligence then? When we look deeper into definitions of human intelligence, we find many definitions and measures and it seems like the jury is still out on that one. There are theories about so many aspects; linguistic, logical, spatial, bodily, interpersonal, intrapersonal.  There is no single definition that encompasses everything and I’ve been on the planet long enough to know that few of us would shine in even one of these areas, far less all of them.

Yet it is abundantly clear that despite the limitations that the majority of us have, whatever method by which we decide to define intelligence, however nebulous, however narrow, is the yardstick by which we as a species, generally presume to measure every other. It speaks to our elitist and speciesist mindset that we find and in fact expect to find articles about intelligence  in the human animal separate from articles about intelligence in other animal species.

Looking for the sake of comparison at pages about intelligence in other animal species, I was not particularly surprised to find that the subject seemed to be broken up into a series of anecdotes, many of which are about individuals whose actions were in some way thought notable, combined with sparse paragraphs that say so little about a whole species as to be almost insulting, as well as one or two more lengthy pieces discussing wider issues such as theory of mind in animals. Our recognition of their skills is grudging even at best, frequently couched in surprised or patronising terms, determined that whatever we discover is not indicative of anything that would elevate their status to being worthy of their birthright to live their lives free from the violence and brutality of our merciless exploitation.

Life in a mirror

Shackles in a slaughterhouse for hens

And in just the same way as our definition of ourselves as ‘animal lovers’ astonishingly disregards the copious bloodbath for which we are each personally responsible when we refuse to be vegan, our eager definition of ourselves as ‘intelligent’ includes pinnacles of human achievement that we personally can scarcely even understand, far less ascribe to. Despite this, we claim this ‘human intelligence’ as if it were our own, and we use it as a cudgel with which we bludgeon our way through the lives, the bodies and the habitats of our fellow earthlings; arrogantly assuming that although we have never taken the time to think about how this supposed intelligence manifests itself in the creature we see in the mirror, we are safe to assume that every other species is inferior.

Mother hen teaching her infants about life

And what exactly is that creature in the mirror doing with all their intelligence? Well I know what the one in my mirror does. She cares for those for whom she feels responsible, looks after the place she thinks of as home, struggles to find a way to acquire the resources she needs to keep herself and those who depend on her fed, clothed, warm, safe and sheltered from the weather. Occasionally she’ll write, she’ll talk with friends, gather information about what others are doing with their time. It’s what I do. And let’s be honest, isn’t that what most of us do?

Recently I have shared a video or two that have been greeted with much delight – I’ll link them at the end. One depicts a tiny bird carefully and with consummate skill, sewing leaves together to create a shelter where she can build her nest. Another video gave an insight into the complex and fascinating life of members of the crow species.

And do you know what they were doing?  They were looking after those for whom they were responsible, looking after the places they regarded as home, struggling to acquire the resources they needed to keep themselves and their dependants fed, safe and sheltered from the weather, gathering information about what others were doing with their time.

Common ground, shared priorities

In short, we have more that connects us with every other species than we care to admit. Each of us is simply living from day to day, caring for family, staying fed and sheltered. That is the level on which most of us function. And when we drop the assumption that we’re so superior to other species, other questions present themselves. Who the hell are we to measure all others by the standards we set – not for ourselves because we know we’re not in the same ballpark – but rather for a few individuals of our species? Who are we to decide that other species are not important enough to live unless they do so exclusively for our interests? And even – how do we actually know that we are the only species in which individuals come along every so often whose brilliance outshines us all?

We are a rather tragic species suffering from a delusion that we are apart from all others, brutalising and destroying our way through our days, rather than acknowledging our role as a part of the interwoven, interdependent network of life and living that is planet Earth. These delusions of ours are dragging the planet we share to the brink of an abyss of our making, a beckoning cataclysm of disease, pollution and destruction caused by our arrogant assumption that our shared world and everyone who has fur or feathers, scales or wings, have no purpose other than to serve our petty whims and convenience. The end is perilously close, and time is running out for us to stop the behaviour that is causing the problem.

If we don’t wake up, and wake up very soon, it will be too late for every one of us, and being responsible for planetary disaster on an apocalyptic scale is hardly something that any intelligent species would do.

Be vegan.


Information and links:

Bird Brains Are Far More Humanlike Than Once Thought


Birds and the Earth’s magnetic field

Climate change links for information


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7 Responses to We’re so vain – thoughts on intelligence

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  5. Coleen Tew says:

    Brilliant article! Most of us are very ordinary, with no special skill set to distinguish us. And as Laura stated, those who are exceptional are the very ones who see all life as valuable and eschew harming others.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: We’re so vain – thoughts on intelligence | Our Compass

  7. Laura says:

    Yes! So many people take pride in the great accomplishments of very few others, as if it makes us all so special, by association. Such mindless arrogance sickens the spirit, as in people’s using “superior intelligence” as an excuse for using/harming/killing the helpless, as long as they’re not “our kind.” Most of the innovative, brilliant minds also loved/respected animals and were humble, not braggarts; some practiced what they espoused and were vegetarian, etc. People only want to steal their greatness, but not live up to their compassion and wisdom. How convenient for the proud masses.

    Liked by 2 people

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