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A few thoughts on “intelligence” and other species….

Humans are so arrogant. We are willing to extend empathy and compassion to those non-human animals who are most like us in terms of “intelligence” (e.g. dolphins, gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants) but we show contempt toward non-human animals who are not so much like us (e.g. frogs, squirrels, sheep).

This is just so wrong.

And what, exactly, IS “intelligence”? According to Wikipedia:

“Intelligence has been defined in many ways including, but not limited to, abstract thought, understanding, self-awareness, communication, reasoning, learning, having emotional knowledge, retaining, planning and problem-solving.”

In other words, things humans are good at. And things that humans keep insisting are uniquely human.

My problem with the concept of intelligence is that it is not quantifiable. It’s not even really definable. It is a concept created by humans, and it can’t be measured in any meaningful way, especially in non-human animals, with whom we cannot communicate.

Most humans feel that they are more intelligent than non-human animals. But is that really so?

Intelligence is anthropocentric. We operate from the bias that humans are at the apex of the intelligence hierarchy and that all other creatures are “lower”. Hierarchies like this one are problematic for obvious reasons. How is it fair to measure the intelligence of other species simply by comparing them to ourselves?

Does the fact that a sheep cannot perform abstract mathematical operations mean that sheep are not intelligent? Sheep have very sophisticated facial recognition skills (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/11/1107_TVsheep.html). While humans constantly criticize sheep intelligence–calling any person who mindlessly follows others a “sheep”–it turns out that sheep are actually very close to humans in terms of their ability to recognize and remember faces.

Sheep form strong, stable social groups. A flock is not made up of mindless followers–rather, sheep find safety in numbers and so tend to stick together. And sheep will follow another sheep who “knows” something, like a good place to graze or shelter–their choice to follow another is not “mindless” at all. To dismiss intelligent sheep behaviour as “mindless” says more about humans than sheep. Many humans–particularly those in the Western world–don’t like being part of a group–they value individuality and “going your own way” or “marching to the beat of your own drum”. Many humans value competition over cooperation, and so the ability of sheep to stick together, watch over each other and help injured and ill individuals seems foreign to us. We sneer at their intelligence and empathy because it does not reflect what we value, and therefore we refuse to recognize it as intelligence.

Sheep intelligence serves sheep well in a sheep’s world. Their inability to do the things that humans value–mathematics, language, etc.–does not mean they are not intelligent. And why is it that the things that humans value are more important than the things a sheep values? Humans might be better served if they tried to be more like sheep.

There are many other sentient beings who have their own ways of living in the world that work for them. Just because it would not work for humans does not mean that these beings are somehow “less” than humans. These beings might not succeed in the world of a human, but that does not make them inferior. They have their own unique intelligence that serves them well in the environment they occupy.

While non-vegans often accuse vegans of anthropomorphism, I think it’s actually the case that non-vegans are anthropocentric. I’d rather err on the side of attributing human characteristics to sentient non-human beings than arrogantly impose upon them the assumption that humans are the centre of the universe and only those beings who are most like us–and have the traits we most value in ourselves–deserve any consideration.


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