animal intelligence

23 Jan

Occasionally, being a farmer, i am subjected to someone’s opinion on the relative value of this or that animal: Usually some nasty comment about how “unintelligent” they are.

For example,  because birds will get really slow and all-but freeze-up after dark (if you want to catch a chicken or do something it does not want, waiting for dark is the easiest way- you can just pluck it off its roost with only minor grumbling), someone said to me, “They’re not very bright, are they?”

This kind of shallow judgement pisses me off. I don’t get angry often, but this ignorance lights the flame for me. The first mistake is to pay no thought to why a bird would do such a thing – it is all too obvious that they are safer from predators if they stay still and disappear into the darkness of night…it has been passed down as a trait through evolution because the birds who were able to stay still and quiet throughout the night survived to reproduce…even though this trait can sometimes make them sitting prey for a creature who finds them in the dark (or has the unprecedented power to control light, as humans do). The second mistake is applying human logic or values to animal behavior. Not only do animalia  from other taxonomic classes or genera not have the same interests as humans and therefore have no motivation to behave in ways we have deemed intelligent, but it is also imposing rules we have developed socially, which may not be supported by the need for survival in nature – morals that may be in practice contraindacatory  to persistence of species.

All of this comes with an arrogant assumption that humans are the most important life form, and are at the centre of the natural world. This is an assumption that I fundamentally disagree with. It assumes that the behaviours of humans are logically and morally right. (As though it is either logical or moral to strip the Earth of its resources, burning through them in such a way that could result in the end of all life on the planet.) It presumes that just because we are able to do things other animals are not, that we are better.

It is a common human belief that we are the only animals capable of employing logic. Some go as far as to believe that animals do not think at all, nor have personalities (i may be stretching for the appropriate word here…what people tend to say is ‘soul’, which is bullshit religious speak that i try to avoid…but what they mean is the essence of who someone is, so i choose personality). I spend more time with animals than the average person these days, and i have witnessed not only their very individual personalities, but them using logic to solve problems. Take a chicken trying to escape a pen: it will try to fly over the fence, if that doesn’t work, it will step back and survey the obstacle, trying a new direction – like maybe it will first jump up onto a roost or step, and then fly again from there. If that doesn’t work, it might try the other wall of  fence or try to go under. This is exactly what logic is: learning from a failed attempt at something and using that knowledge to further the problem-solving effort.

Right now i am dealing with some problems regarding my hens pecking one another to injury. It is all too easy to apply current values on bullying, equality, and accessibility to the birds, and to vilify a “bad” bird making victims of her flockmates. Not only is it an emotional and unscientific reaction to apply these values, it could outright damage the safety and social structure of the coop for me to intervene on this basis without careful thought as to why the chickens are behaving this way. “Pecking order” is not based on a chicken’s sadistic desire to inflict pain and suffering on her peers; it is an evolution-affirmed behavior that establishes a hierarchy based on the strength and health of the animals – it gives preferential treatment (in the form of first access to food and water, choice roosting spot, mating preference, etc.)  to those at the top of the hierarchy, encouraging survival of both the species and the flock, and allowing the most capable birds the tools to protect the flock  from danger. For example, the roosters may be observed to boss the hens around, but they are also their protectors, both looking out for danger, and standing up to predators. This “bossiness” is more in the name of keeping the hens safe from harm, ensuring the succession of young, and the females obviously feel more secure with their escort, and willing to do as he says. The pecking hierarchy can even lead to the death (likely through denying access to food, but also through ostracism, leading the weak bird to isolate itself or go away to be picked off) of weak and sick birds. Through our social lens, this seems horrific, but if we are able to look at it objectively, this can be a measure to protect the flock from communicable disease, and also from a drain on resources. In a natural setting, there might not be enough food to go around, and allowing food to the least likely to survive a stress (such as attack, famine, or disease) is only making the flock weaker and decreasing the probability of survival for the larger group.

I understand that my viewpoint on this kind of thing may seem cold or offensive to those wholehearted believers in accessibility. Allow me to extrapolate this philosophy to the very (human, social) structure I have seemingly condemned…
Most of what i say at most times is a question, without an assumption that i have the answer… but what if (and now we are talking only about humans, and not other animals) our doctrine of protecting and providing for the weak in our social structure is in adaptation to our coming together into larger groups in the transition between hunter-gatherer and agrarian communities (about 12.5 thousand years ago)?

Where a hunter-gatherer tribe may not be able to sustain the drain on the community in the  same way a flock of birds couldn’t, perhaps the values changed with the new needs of a new way of life? The strength of a permanent (as in non-migratory) society of humans are in its numbers, in shared resources, in the building of permanent infrastructure, where the strengths of a smaller, migratory population are in the individual physical and mental abilities to protect from danger and procure food. Perhaps the change in the needs of the populations allowed its own protection for those less able to survive the conditions of a different way of life, could it be that this allowed for the social values to appreciate traits other than physical strength, agility, speed, leadership, etc.?  Traits such as mental abilities, philosophical logic, artistic aptitude, that could lead to the furthering of the species in formerly unrecognized ways…a change that would allow us to appreciate the contribution of someone like Stephen Hawking or Alan Turing and not just of Napoleon and Wayne Gretzky. In this way, we are employing our yet animal intelligence to further our species by prioritizing our best  chances of survival. We may still be doing the very thing we may condemn in the animals and disguising it as something “greater” or moral. The needs of our populations have changed, and so our behaviours and values changed. The needs of animals have changed far less drastically over these same thousands of years, and so it still benefits their interests more to perpetuate animalistic behaviour. There is nothing unintelligent about behaving in the best interest of survival.

As usual, i digress from my point because i like to wonder and follow the thoughts where they go…the intended point is that animals do not need to measure up to a human standard of intelligence. It is like trying to measure your height in litres. It is illogical to apply an irrelevant metric to valuation. The fact that they do not behave as humans would does not make them stupid, but judging them as though they are human may very well be stupid.

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