For two thousand years, we have been led to believe humans are special. We are superior to every other organism on planet earth,. we are taught. Masters of the universe even. More and more evidence is appearing though that not only are humans just one more branch on the huge tree of different kinds of animals, but some of these other animals even outsmart us. At least, they definitely do on certain abilities.
Of course, humans have evolved in impressive ways. We are rather flexible, able to take advantage of our surroundings and even to some extent mould them to our will. Our brains can adapt to circumstances magnificently and they have an unlimited capacity to learn.
The human brain is able to constantly come up with new ideas, also founded on knowledge acquired by brains in times long gone by. This is only possible thanks to the brain’s capacity to share information with other brains. At first, through sounds and gestures, then via spoken language and afterwards in a far bigger and more lasting way through written language. In this way, through the course of time, a kind of gigantic ‘universal brain’ has come into being which every newcomer of the human race can tap into and also add new facts to.
“We humans are special”, writes Michael Gazzaniga, a professor of psychology at the University of California and one of the leading researchers in cognitive neuroscience, in his book Human: the science behind what makes your brain unique. “We solve problems effortlessly and routinely. Although we are made up of the same chemicals, with the same physiological reactions, we are very different from other animals.”
One of the brain’s special features is consciousness (read more about consciousness here). Although the brain functions mostly outside of consciousness, our consciousness makes us believe we are very important. Our self makes it hard to take some distance and think realistically about our niche in the world.
Apparently, some time during evolution, it resulted advantageous for an organism to have a brain with two states: unconscious and conscious. In the unconscious state, the brain takes care of fast, often stereotypical reactions. In the conscious state, processes are far slower, but it helps the brain come up with deliberate reactions to complicated situations. Both states can also influence each other.
For many centuries, it was presumed only humans possessed consciousness. A clear example of the arrogance of mankind to always feel superior to all other living beings. Recently, scientists found signals probably more animal species have some form of consciousness.
The same goes true for the more extensive concepts of cognition and intelligence. How far have we come in accepting animal cognition? People placing humans over all other animals are still in the majority, even among scientists.
“We love to compare and contrast animal and human intelligence ranking ourselves as the touchstone”, writes Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behaviour at Emory University in Atlanta and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. “But the comparison should not be between humans and animals, but between one animal species – ours – and a vast array of others.”
De Waal has just published a new book titled Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? In this book, he explores both the scope and the depth of animal intelligence. He offers a first-hand account of how science has turned traditional behaviourism upside down by revealing how smart animals really are, and how we’ve underestimated their abilities for too long.
“Humans are a strange lot. We have the power to analyse and explore the world around us, yet panic as soon as the evidence threatens to violate our expectations”, De Waal writes. He refers to the fact that in psychology a tendency exists to change definitions of cognitive aspects as soon as certain animals have been proven to meet the former definition. “We have to circumvent the fragile human ego and treat cognition like any other biological phenomenon.”
“It all goes back to the dichotomy of animals as ‘wild’ and humans as ‘civilised’. This dichotomy lurks behind almost every debate about what makes us human, so much so that whenever humans behave badly, we call them ‘animals’.”
De Waal gives an account of research involving crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, bats, whales, chimpanzees, and bonobos which shows animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed.
“Even though for many people animal intelligence is self-evident, science never takes anything at face value. We want proof, which with regard to animal cognition has now become overwhelming.”
According to De Waal, each organism has its own ecology and lifestyle which dictates what it needs to know in order to make a living. “Animals have the brains they need – nothing more, nothing less. Instead of making humanity the measure of all things, we need to evaluate other species by what they are.”
Watching documentaries about the details of animal life on the National Geographic channel for instance, you wonder how we ever came to think of animals as mechanistic and inanimate creatures. It is fantastic that we, with our clever brain, can now marvel at how smart other animals are.
Noah’s ark © GraphicsRF – Fotolia.com
Human, the science behind what makes your brain unique
Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?