We humans like to think of ourselves as superior in intelligence to other animals. Justin Gregg’s book, If Nietzsche Were A Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity(If Nietzsche Was a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity) shows that it’s not always obvious.
Human stupidity interests me. I have dedicated a book to the pandemic of stupidity currently ravaging the United States.
The Pr Gregg, an animal behavior specialist, teaches at Saint-Francis-Xavier University in Nova Scotia. His book opens with an account of the decline of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s mental health, claiming that if his mind had been like that of a narwhal, he would not have suffered from such despair.
Nietzsche suffered from persistent depression, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts. The year of publication of his most famous book, Thus spake Zarathustra, he declares himself “crazy”. He died in a mental asylum in Basel, Switzerland.
According to Gregg, intelligence from an evolutionary point of view is often a handicap, as shown by the tortured mind of Nietzsche: he wished, at the same time, to be as stupid as a cow so as not to have to think about his existence, and pitied the cows for being so stupid that they could not think about their existence.
“Bird brain”, a compliment
In a humorous style, intertwining the comic and the tragic, Gregg posits that human intelligence, in some cases, is an evolutionary inferior to types of intelligence we find in other species.
He shows that animals often do better without the cognitive abilities that make humans exceptional. For example, humans are the only ones aware of the inevitability of their death. He wonders if this knowledge is useful. It doesn’t seem to bring us much evolutionary benefit or much satisfaction.
Less intelligent than we think
He discusses several cognitive abilities that are a double-edged sword: “our ability to deceive others (and ourselves), our reasoning ability (which gives us the ability to rationalize genocide), and our ability to cause causal inference ( which led us to create vaccines and electricity, but also nuclear weapons).
“I review many cognitive skills that at first glance appear to be exceptional and beneficial abilities, but upon closer examination may, in fact, be problematic enough to drive the eventual extinction of our species.”
For this reason, Gregg argues, nonhuman animals often have ways of thinking that generate behaviors that are far less destructive to themselves and the planet.
Our big brains, he says, have allowed us to proliferate as a species. But they have also allowed us to cause such ecological disasters that we are creating the conditions for our own extinction. They are now hurtling us towards an apocalypse.