Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Animal Intelligence

I was just out back [full disclosure, smoking some extremely intense legal! marijuana yay! and] listening to the lovely flock that lives in our hedge; and the extremely fine (as well as large) variations in pitch and rhythm they display in their communication raises a question for me: if those minute, intricate riffs on their deceptively small repertoire of sounds are completely deliberate, someone mathier than I am could start throwing out numbers of separate “words” or “letters” these subtly different strings of “chirps” could theoretically represent. I may well be hearing them pass on ancient oral histories, stories, poems, riddles?

When we were kids in the 60's, I used to hear people say “the one thing that separates humans from the animals is ...” ad nauseam, usually preceding a metaphysical assertion like “... we have ‘souls’ and they don't.” An anthropologist in the 70's told me it's the fact that we make tools. (Oops.) Then I heard it was that we are capable of altruism. (Oops.) Recently someone on TV said that the only human behavior he had never seen in another species is that we cook our food. That may be true, although I wouldn't count volcano-vent extremophiles out quite yet. Just not with frying pans, and perhaps "intention" the way we experience it.

Popularly in those days any animal sound was referred to as a “mating call.” Shit! Forget the whole damned universe. In our unfortunate arrogance we have made ourselves “all alone” right here on Earth.

1 comment:

James said...


So let's think just a little more about this. As a species, all kinds of things set us apart from the others. We are, (just by way of example),

Better at Devising Intricate, Largely Idle Mental Constructs than most animals we know of.
Not the best, but pretty good at Figuring Out Novel, ever more Sinister Ways to Gang Up on Prey.
Unquestionably the most wildly prolific at Making and Using Every Kind of Tool You could Ever Even Think of—and Hell, even some Downright Unthinkable Ones Too! of any species.

There are vast underground fungi thousands of miles across that perhaps could rival the scope and scale of human technology as single, self-replicating, all-consuming organisms. But our technology is unique as something of a global scale, growing from an abstract seed in a host animal's brain, eventually taking on a material life of its own before turning upon and slowly sucking the life from its host. Could be wrong. But I'm pretty sure that's our keenest adaptation to date.
And for all our self-satisfied prodigiousness, we are not particularly adept at many of the vital survival mechanisms many other species would go extinct without. Seeing in Extremely Low Light, (or Ultraviolet, or Infrared); or Hearing the Minutest Rustle in the Leaves and Swooping Down upon Just the Right Spot to Make the Kill; or Bodily Running Down Feral Prey and Capturing it with one's Own Bare Hands. Few humans excel in these—Batman, maybe?—sniper assassins on TV? Why, I’m sorry to have to say, even a good many of us here in idyllic little Ellensburg might well come up deficient (on a bad day) in any of these.