VIEWPOINT: There are tiny little insects called the Rhinoceros beetle that can lift 285 times their bodyweight. Humans can manage 1.7 times their bodyweight only. The starfish can regenerate their entire body from a cut off limb. Humans of course, can only regenerate a broken toe nail perhaps. Elephants can keep track of up to 30 absent members of their family by sniffing out their scent and building a mental map of where they are. Humans cannot smell and locate their keys, let alone their family members.
In the thousands of years that humans have inhabited planet Earth, we have successfully deceived ourselves into believing that we are the smartest living forms ever created – smarter than the 8.7 million species that also live on the same planet. But now with growing evidence pointing that most animals and plants have many attributes humans can merely imagine, it is also safe to say – Humans are not smarter than the rest of the living planet, just different.
Says Dr Arthur Saniotis, Visiting Research Fellow in University of Adelaide, Australia,
“For millennia, all kinds of authorities – from religion to eminent scholars – have been repeating the same idea ad nauseam, that humans are exceptional by virtue that they are the smartest in the animal kingdom. However, science tells us that animals can have cognitive faculties that are superior to human beings.”
Crops, Tools and Faith
Dr. Saniotis believes that the idea of humans being better skilled and smarter than animals germinated with the first cultivation practices. As man began growing crops instead of just plucking fruits from wild growing trees, the notion that we were capable of doing something better than other animals and therefore were more intelligent took root.
The idea only gained momentum with the development of organized religion he says, which viewed human beings as the top species in creation.
“The belief of human cognitive superiority became entrenched in human philosophy and sciences. Even Aristotle, probably the most influential of all thinkers, argued that humans were superior to other animals due to our exclusive ability to reason,” Dr Saniotis says.
Industrial revolution brought into the forefront such astounding mechanical advances, that any superior trait or evolutionary quality shown by any other species just got sidelined.
The fact that the tiniest creatures like the Monarch butterfly can cover miles from one country to another as a winter migration is not a lesser achievement than any industrial revolution but we never cared enough to notice.
Monarchs can produce four generations during one summer when they live in North America. The first three generations will have life spans from 2 – 6 weeks and will continue moving north. During this time they will mate and have the next generation that will continue the northward migration. The fourth generation is different and can live up to nine months – an astounding lifespan that has been pre-determined for them even before birth. These are the butterflies that will migrate south for winter to either Mexico or southern California.
Humans can create machines, but they are still not smart enough to create offspring that would have specific life spans when they come into the world unlike the tiny Monarch butterfies.
Respecting the Differences
Professor Maciej Henneberg, a professor of anthropological and comparative anatomy from the School of Medical Sciences, says animals often possess different abilities that are misunderstood by humans.
“The fact that they may not understand us, while we do not understand them, does not mean our ‘intelligences’ are at different levels, they are just of different kinds. When a foreigner tries to communicate with us using an imperfect, broken, version of our language, our impression is that they are not very intelligent. But the reality is quite different,” Professor Henneberg says.
He stresses that if we were to really observe, we would be astonished to find how little we really know about animal intelligence. Humans are proud of their language capabilities but each and every monkey called the gibbons can produce 20 different sounds that each means something different. Dolphins and bats communicate in a language that human ears cannot even hear.
“Animals offer different kinds of intelligences which have been under-rated due to humans’ fixation on language and technology. These include social and kinaesthetic intelligence. Some mammals, like gibbons, can produce a large number of varied sounds – over 20 different sounds with clearly different meanings that allow these arboreal primates to communicate across tropical forest canopy. The fact that they do not build houses is irrelevant to the gibbons.
“Many quadrupeds leave complex olfactory marks in their environment, and some, like koalas, have special pectoral glands for scent marking. Humans, with their limited sense of smell, can’t even gauge the complexity of messages contained in olfactory markings, which may be as rich in information as the visual world,” he says.
The best possible way to understand and respect animal smartness is possibly the ones we have domesticated or made pets or that have adapted to live in urban environments. Cats can stalk and kill mice better than we can, dogs can sniff the air and hear sounds better than us, pigeons have a far superior geo mapping device in their brains than any modern app in your cell phone, a squirrel can never be beaten during a scavenger hunt because it’s brains knows the precise location of every nut it has hidden as a winter food storage underground.
“They can even communicate to us their demands and make us do things they want. The animal world is much more complex than we give it credit for,” says Professor Henneberg.
Co-inhabitants not Competitors
Once we start appreciating the evident capabilities of other species, some far superior than ours, we can also begin to realize that the resources of the planet – the plants, food, minerals, water and air are not our property alone. It is a shared treasure. The true value of our intelligence lies, in how well we manage this treasure and divide it- use it in such a way that every creature has plenty. Our role in the living world is not of a king because we are the smartest but best of a manager with proven skill sets that can save resources for all co-inhabitants of the planet. If we were smart..really really smart, we would know what is at risk and make amends. Human enterprise is what makes us different, and that is what is needed to save all, not us alone.
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Image of Rhinoceros beetle via ichsweb.com