Once more with feelings: 'we are animals!'
We always forget that we are animals. We even insult each other using animal likeness as if intelligence were the exclusive birthright of humans. But the mere fact that we do not know or much worse, do not care, that animals are intelligent, should make us doubt the authenticity of our own self-claims about our own intelligence as humans. We should know animals because we are animals.
A few weeks ago, science news broke with the headline of an orca whale, Wikie, mimicking human sounds ("hello," "one," "two," and "Amy") as they were uttered to him. The study found very exciting revelations that indeed, killer whales can mimic sounds (‘vocal variants") that pass the acoustic test for being close to the human sounds they were copying. This also confirms how these killer whales could also copy sounds from other species like dolphins. Mimicry is in fact how dialects emerge! And this is not the first time another animal demonstrated vocal mimicry. There was an orangutan, an elephant, and something more by a grey parrot.
Now, the insecure human who would have clicked the link I provided would have listened to the audio and say "but that is not recognizable human sound!" There is a clear explanation to that: they are killer whales. Their vocal variant is different but the fact that they utter their version of it right after they hear the human words is mimicry and that is intelligence. Besides, the acoustic tests also showed that their vocal variants approximate the pattern made by the human voice they heard compared to a random utterance. Also, "speaking" is not the only proof of intelligence. Even in the human arena, those who could speak do not automatically show signs of it.
Whenever I speak to an audience, especially students, about why bother communicating science to the public, I include, among other things. "In science, you meet intelligent life forms, including humans." I always hear an undertone among my young audience when they hear me say that and then they start volunteering fascinating stories of how indeed, some animals they know or know of seem to be more intelligent than some of the humans we know. But that is not a fair statement, especially to other animals, because it does not make sense to judge another animal's intelligence based on the demands of another animal's life. Would you for instance judge the "leisure time" of another animal by how far removed that animal is from being in a café glued to a screen engaged in social media? If it were the other way around, then it should be fair for instance, for the killer whale to judge you on your ability to dive and surface at will in deep blue oceans. And this is where Frans de Waal, the scientist of animal behavior and intelligence comes in to put us human animals, in our uncomfortable but proper place alongside other animals.
In his 2016 book, Are We Smart to Know How Smart Animals Are, we are offered a prime seat in viewing the secret world of animals. I started imagining animals deliberately playing stupid when we humans are around, testing if humans could figure them out. The book title obliterates the poorly placed assumption that we humans occupy the penthouse of the cognitive skyscraper and other animals, occupy the lower floors depending on how closely they come to our level of intelligence. In his book, you will be armed with examples to gently remind others who still smugly live in their self-proclaimed sophistication that first, humans are intelligent animals but the kingdom where they belong, Animalia, is really punctuated with peaks of intelligences and we humans are just one of them (on our best days , anyway).
In that secret world, you will meet Orangs who slowly dismantle their cages for days, unscrewing bolts and screws and hiding those from their humans, until they are finally free. You will also meet alligators and crocodiles who balance sticks on their snouts for birds desperate to find branches or twigs but who would end up as happy meals for the reptiles. You will also meet Clever Hans, the horse whose human owner claimed could do math by giving its answers by tapping his hoofs but only to find out that Hans could not do math but was hypersensitive to his owner that he tapped his hoofs as he read his human's reaction as Hans' taps got closer to the answer. You will meet Dandy, the orangutan who pretended not to immediately see the human-buried buried grapefruits so he could go back to them when the other orangs were not around.
You will also meet a bird called Clark's Nutcracker who can hide and store 29,000 pine nuts in no less than hundreds of different locations over many square miles and recovers most of them in spring and winter. And you will meet the fanous Alex, the talking grey parrot who was so adept at language and language in context that he would tell his human, the animal psychologist Dr. Irene Pepperberg who trained him to "Slow Down!" whenever she was rushing. When Alex died in 2007, there were obituaries in the New York Times and The Economist for the more enlightened human readers. And there are so many more that after you have read the book, you would want to go to the first animal (other than human) you know and make amends (depending on what the animal is) for being not smart enough to know they are.
Through all the examples, De Waal reminds us that there our tests for intelligence should fit the animal and not the human tester. If bats could test humans for intelligence using their own standards, we would fail gloriously in echolocation except for the blind man who could navigate by clicking. With the Clark Nutcracker as it is with squirrels, it is about knowing where to hide nuts and remembering where you hid them. As de Waal clearly puts it, "It seems highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to 10 if counting is not really what a squirrel's life is about."
Some humans are convinced that "altruism" or simply "caring for others" is a blanket with fixed parameters that cloaks only the human psyche. To this De Waal, recounts an incident when a psychologist declared to an audience that " No ape will ever jump into a lake to save another!" De Waal had to debunk that with evidence from reports that apes have done this, often fatally, as they could not swim. When humans do that, we call it "a sacrifice" but when apes do it, we call them "dumb."
A student recently asked me: "Why do we have to be interested in scientists? Shouldn't we just focus on their ideas? I told him that if you do that, it will be like studying echolocation without the bats. De Waal expressed the golden rule of studying animals: Consider the whole animal (their "umwelten" or "lifeworld") and not just its parts or aspects of their behavior. I think we humans are just so full of it that we balk at being judged only by certain aspects of our personalities, yet with other animals, we think that is the only way.
We forget we are animals. We forget that we share bits and pieces of our biology with the rest of life, more with other animals. But we always insist on our "specialness" as if the other animals are always demanding proof from us. We thought up religions, companies, churches and guilds and then declare, "see, only humans can form such groups!" And the other members of Kingdom Animalia are clueless because those do not matter to their lives so their intelligences will be effectively stupidities (curious though they may be) if they did form those.
The owner of Clever Hans was so disappointed that his horse, Clever Hans, could not really count but was just really sensitive to his owner's body language that Clever Hans gave correct answers. He gave him away. The human owner was not intelligent enough to know how smart his horse was. Being sensitive to his owner mattered to Clever Hans' life. Answering math questions from humans did not make sense in a horse's life.
If you really got to know an animal and its "life world", what will you tell the smug humans? – Rappler.com