Friday, September 17, 2010

The concept of non-human intelligence

What is intelligence?  What is consciousness?  What is awareness?  
What constitutes or defines any of these concepts?

And why is humanity often so fucking arrogant as to assume we're the only species capable of any of the above?
There is a movement currently afoot called The Whale And Dolphin People Project.  The upshot of the collective's mission is to validate the notion that both whales and dolphins have the same level of intelligence and awareness as humans and should therefore be afforded the same level of rights.  That would mean that all of the dolphins killed by BP's oil spill this summer if we didn't know already...murder victims.
This undoubtedly sits uncomfortably with many people.  We like to think that we're special.  Many among us like to cling to that line from the Book of Genesis that proclaims man as "master over all the earth" and that he can do with all other species "as he sees fit."  Well, I was raised in a Catholic household, I still pray, and I still have to call shenanigans on the Book of Genesis. 
From where does our "special" status stem?  Our level of technology?  Granted we don't see many (if any) other mammals with surface to air missiles, but that is neither an indicator of intelligence nor a statement on aptitude with technology.  Most primates can manipulate their environment to their advantage and fashion crude tools out of bark and branches.  Dams that beavers build are by definition a form of technology.  Besides, tech level does not necessarily equate to intelligence.  I sincerely doubt anyone would call Native Americans unintelligent because they lived in tents and longhouses, not palaces of glass and chromium steel.  Besides, we're at the highest tech level in history and I often doubt humanity's intelligence.
So what else might the criterion be?  My friend Ahab once said that we are set apart by our ability for abstract thought.  Sounds good at first blush, but you forget to factor in the communication barrier.  We know that many if not all animals communicate, we just often cannot understand them.  Therefore, many other species may think in the abstract...and we would never know.
So then is it "living with a sense of purpose?"  That's my Dad's theory.  And even I have to call him out on this.  St. Thomas Aquinas once said that non-human animals perhaps serve God better than humans since they live out their nature exactly as God intended without chance of deviation.  So is that it?  Free will?  Does someone locked away lose all ability to reason?  Perhaps with time, but not in the same way that I believe my father intends.
Any idiot who has had a pet as a member of their family can tell you that animals have emotions and are, at least on a certain level, self-aware.  I fail to see then why we cannot extrapolate this further and say that species such as dolphins and whales evolved not behind us, not ahead of us, but somewhere off to the side.
Sadly, the main obstacle to coming to understand and respect this notion is one of definition, semantics, and rhetoric.  That is, "what does 'intelligence' mean?  What defines it?'"  

Looking around human society today, I ask myself those very same questions.

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