Experience and Intelligence Without Opposable Thumbs

Smart Ass Dolphin and opposable thumbs
Judgmental Dolphin

Just because we have opposable thumbs doesn’t mean we should pat ourselves on the back too much, and it sure doesn’t mean we always put them to the best use. When at last Dolphins evolve to have opposable thumbs, we may finally have the benevolent overlords that can help us get our shit together, fix the climate, and be explained Super String Theory. And most important, how to chill out and enjoy life.

Well, almost certainly Dolphins aren’t going to evolve opposable thumbs, not in the conceivable future, and not unless there was a significant environmental pressure for natural selection to do its handiwork. The intelligence of animals is often underestimated by the general public. Aside from our inclination to be egotistical and relish our position at the top of the food chain, it’s the fact that we have opposable thumbs that we’re able to leave an abundance of evidence all over the globe of our intellectual capacities.

Cooked Meat Evolves Bigger Brains

Of course the size of our brains plays the primary role in our cognitive capacities. We have a neo-frontal cortex that is more advanced than any other primate, but without opposable thumbs we would not be able to hearken back to the feats of our ancestors; the Sistine Chapel, the Acropolis, and the Great Wall of China, E=MC2, and our understanding of the world in general.

Our ability to write and use mathematics allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants. The scientists who make grand discoveries in the present do so largely in part due to the work done by their predecessors, whose work they can refer back to and build upon. Engineers, plumbers, and any number of professions benefit from those that came before and their ability to leave instructions from which to climb higher.

Bird Brain As A Compliment

Humans have various ways of measuring intelligence such as the IQ test, and the kind of intelligence we prize above all others is our ability to ‘think’, to reason, to solve puzzles and find solutions to problems – too often problems caused by human’s in the first place. Other animals can display problem solving skills as well, and they can be taught. Alex the African Grey Parrot, trained and loved by scientist Irene Pepperberg is an excellent example of how far even a bird’s mind can be stretched when enough time, energy and devotion is put into the endeavor.

Without the assistance of human’s broadening an animal’s horizons, they rely on their DNA to provide ancestral knowledge, or instincts if you’d rather. The parents of animals impart what worldly knowledge they can to their offspring – some far more than others – and of course the animals can learn from life experience. Those quicker to adapt to life lessons live longer, propagate their genes more successfully, and hence natural selection carries them forth into ever more complex beings.

Many people are familiar with the concept of multiple scales of intelligence that we now apply to humans. Spatial, musical, verbal and mathematics serve as examples. In this way we’ve broadened the spectrum of who we deem to be intelligent and in what ways, which is far better than relying on a simple IQ test alone. But while animals share some similar characteristics of human intelligence, they can’t match our ability to leave a thumb print on the Earth. They leave behind no paintings, no mathematical formulas, no grand structures. But is the absence of these feats evidence that they don’t ‘think’ or that they are not intelligent?

Awareness, Intelligence Beyond Thought

In Eastern Philosophy the cultivation of a mind absent of thoughts is considered a great virtue. Of course the mind remains capable of thought, but the ‘noise’, the ego, can be dropped in favor of a vast awareness that can unlock insights into the nature of our selves and the cosmos. Thought, as humans understand it and so value, is not the end all, or perhaps even the pinnacle of intelligence.

Bats have poor eye sight but are capable of using sonar to catch prey with incredible accuracy. Ants can leave behind chemical trails for others to follow to food sources or back to a nest. Bees can produce honey and work together in close quarters with incredible cooperation. There’s something magnificent about the hive mind, a collective consciousness that works as one for the survival and prosperity of a colony of so vast an array of insects. We can venture a guess based on the nervous system and the size of an insect’s brain their capacities for learning and for experiencing the world, but we should not underestimate it, we shoulder marvel in wonder instead.

Elephants, and many other animals, are the first to become aware of a tsunami, so in touch with the vibrations of the Earth through not only the sensitivity of the nerves in their feet, but the awareness of what those vibrations portend. This can cheaply labelled ‘instinct’, but so much of human behavior is built on instinct and reactivity as well.

A human has a pitiful sense of smell in comparison to a dog, as most everyone is familiar. All of the information we take in as humans is through our sensory organs that allow us to experience and interact with the world. These sensory organs are tools to take in information and for our brains to create a map of reality, allowing us to negotiate and thrive in our habitats. There’s intelligence in the sense of smell – there’s intelligence in the ability to use sonar, and a Whale’s song is not just a beautiful echo stretching across miles of ocean, but it is a form of communication and intelligence in and of itself.

While other animals besides Homo Sapiens do not have our kind of intelligence, the capacity of higher cognitive functioning, and the opposable thumbs to leave behind evidence of our presence and impact on the world, we should strive always to respect the unique experience of the world other animals have, experiences we could only wonder at with awe if for a moment we were to enjoy the depths of their sensory experience.

A World Of Experience Beyond Our Own

For while a dog may not lounge about on a couch thinking about colonizing Mars, they are having an experience, information flooding through their sensory organs and mapped out into their own perceptual reality. You need only gaze into the eyes of a dog to see the sheer joy that experience brings them.

By studying the way other animal’s minds work we can better understand our own experience on Earth and broaden the vistas of imagination, for there is such a richness of experience beyond our senses to be reveled in, and in that experience is intelligence emerging in a thousand forms. Allow yourself to be humbled by the presence of our cousins, for lurking out there in the cosmos maybe beings whose cognitive capacities so dwarf ours as to leave us appearing as ‘mere insects’ in comparison.

To swim as a Dolphin, to soar as an Eagle, to enjoy the stillness of a reptile basking in the sun, such experiences of being are not to be diminished by the arrogance of our own mental feats, but to be treasured and observed, for with each extinction of an animal species on the planet an experience of being alien to us, but no less beautiful, is lost.

It would only be fair to let Irene Pepperberg further elaborate on the work she did in conjunction with Alex her many colleagues:

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