We think we’re smart. And sometimes we are. Not always, not about everything, but often we are. The bigger question is: does it matter?
For many species, extra intelligence is not a boon to survival. Smarter sharks and smarter rabbits don’t necessarily do better in the wild than their stupider comrades. Nor anteaters. Perhaps because most of their days are spent trying to survive in a hostile world, and digging for grubs, for example, doesn’t require a better system than has been employed by anteaters for millennia.
So when the smart squirrel contemplates a better system for storing food for the winter, he’s diminishing the amount of time he would otherwise be spending on actually caching food for the harsher weather.
But for humans, extra intelligence is almost always an advantage. The smarter among us are better able to discern the safer or better path through life. They find ways to manipulate their environment to achieve greater wealth so they can better provide for themselves and their families.
They aren’t necessarily happier, because increased intelligence has almost nothing to do with happiness. In fact, I might argue, the smarter one is, the more difficult it is to be happy. A smart woman sees more of the suffering in the world than her less educated peers and if she is unable to ease that suffering to a noticeable degree, she suffers the more for her knowledge.
Consider people with Down syndrome or other intellectual disabilities. It’s rare that they seem unhappy with their lives. Because their wishes perhaps are fewer, their satisfaction seems greater. They may not live as long. They may not achieve vast wealth, but they’re happy and that’s what most of us strive for.
Or note the lowly dog, the pet that relies on us for its existence. These poor creatures beg us for food, sleep half the day, and accomplish little except for bringing us joy. But are they really less intelligent than us or do we just think of them that way?
We think of intelligence in certain ways, linking it to communication with people. Because dogs don’t speak, we believe we’re smarter than they are. But dogs communicate with scent they way we communicate with words. Their noses are many thousands of times more sensitive than ours, so they interpret their environment through their noses.
If we tried that, we would be blithering idiots. We couldn’t survive if we were forced to rely on our noses for information about the world.
Or consider sound. Some creatures hear vastly better than us – dolphins and bats being the most cited examples of animals that rely on sound for understanding and manipulating their habitat.
It’s only because we have trouble communicating with these species that we consider them inferior. But how do they see it? Do they have as much trouble communicating with us as we have communicating with them? Perhaps they know us as well as they wish to. Our dogs let us know when they’re hungry and when they want to go outside, when they’re happy and when they’re upset or scared or angry.
And zookeepers learn how to distinguish whether the animals in their care are doing well by the myriad signals those creatures send. The more time they spend with them, the more they come to understand their moods and wants.
So perhaps their intelligence is not less than ours, just different. Perhaps we need to look at intelligence in a different way. We know that for humans, extra intelligence is a boon to survival, so we ought to try to be lifelong learners. We ought to study our world and our fellow creatures with an eye to understanding them – not so we can manipulate or dominate them, but so we can better appreciate them.
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