Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Homo sapiens: the Ape With Nukes. Or Are We Really the Smartest Animals Alive?

In his excellent book Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? Frans de Waal tells of the chimp Ayumu who could memorize a random layout of the digits one through nine when shown them for a mere one fifth of a second, a task impossible for most if not all humans. So we aren't very smart at some of the tasks that might feature in an inter-specific IQ test.

It might be argued that visual memory is hardly a measure of smart. But animals do all sorts of other things that humans can do barely or not at all. Hunt moths by echolocation like a bat, for example. What's more, animals do pretty well at solving problems: the New Caledonian crow, for example, being better at solving a variety of puzzles than the average seven-year-old human.

But whatever one may say about the intelligence of animals, none have been smart enough to build the bomb, or describe the motion of the planets. So what makes us effectively smarter than the animals, even if our IQ is not nearly so much higher than that of other animals as most people think?

Evolution? Image source
The answer is language. That humans have somewhat larger brains, though not by that much, than other apes is an evolutionary development almost certainly related to, and driven by the benefits of, language acquisition.

As I have previously discussed, the gift of language grants humanity a power almost equal to that of telepathy. For direct mind-to-mind communication, there is no need for everyone to have a chip in their head as some have supposed. All that's required is the ability to think in symbols, and to express those symbols by verbal utterance or other means. Then, to create the same thought in your head as in mine, I have simply to think out loud. Thus, if I say, "elephants never forget," what you'll hear is "elephants never forget," which is my thought exactly.

Language thus creates a group mind. Experience of one becomes the knowledge of all. Knowledge passes between the generations, and beyond the bounds of the tribe. Your solution to the problem of extracting honey from the bees' nest without being stung can become my solution too, without my ever seeing you perform the trick. With that one step, a dim-witted ape became master of a wealth of knowledge far beyond the experience of a single individual or a single generation.

The verbal sharing of knowledge meant improved human survival, larger populations, the development of urban civilization, the complexity of which gave rise to a need for record keeping, which led naturally to the invention of writing.

Writing provided the means to the next big step in the evolution of human "smartness." It led to the transmission of experience and ideas over both time and space. Knowledge now passed easily down the generations and between tribes, cities and nations. With the accumulation and dispersal of literary, historical and technical writings, the intelligence of a person of any accomplishment ceased to be a product chiefly of that individual's own experience and cerebration, but of the civilization in which that individual was raised.

And now there is the Internet, which makes civilizational distinctions obsolete. All human knowledge is available to everyone, everywhere at virtually no cost. Even a poorly financed terrorist organization has the potential to deploy weapons of mass destruction. The world is at the threshold of an era during which all kinds of freaks and crazies will be able to wreak havoc upon the world. In Washington, Moscow or Beijing, one of them may already have their finger on the button marked Armageddon. All that power in the hands of an animal with a mind comparable to that of a crow and in some ways inferior to the brain of a chimp.


Frans de Waal: Moral Behavior in Animals


  1. Much on this topic when pre-Iron age cultures comes up. Or their later residue.

    Cats are known to engage in "massing" which has no explanation, but all ancient cultures associated them with energy of some sort. Bast on the Nile associates with fecundity in springtime, Zimnik the Frost demon in proto-Slavic lands carries a cat-powered the wand that turned his victims to ice, Freya the Norse goddess rode a chariot drawn by cats.

    It was either Anthony Peake or Colin Wilson who mentioned that humans are too aware of time, but animals have NO awareness of time which is an advantage. Dogs don't go to Heaven because Heaven equals not having to worry and fret about tomorrow or bury yourself in regrets over yesterday.

    "Sekhmet" the other cat goddess is only the word in old Khem for "power" with the divine "NTR" determinative. It's usually rendered "sekhem" but there's been so many variations since the Pyramid Texts no one seems certain why that is.

    Maybe it's an old in-joke. Animals, unlike current Trump supporters, just ain't got to worry about time. At all. Ever. That's power!

    1. A cat has a quite smooth unwrinkled brain, which places it, intellectually, well below the crows, lower even than a baboon, and only slightly higher than a politician.