In his recently published book, world renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, demolishes the idea that we humans are a special species because we possess mental abilities not present in lower animals.
The long list of these abilities includes:
- Tool making and use
- Anticipating the future and planning for it
- Political awareness (of status and alliances in social groups)
- A sense of fairness
- Co-operative behaviour
- Passing on useful and desirable ways of behaviour (“culture” in other words)
But de Waals shows that all of these so-called uniquely human abilities turn out to have equivalent forms or precursors in other animals!
A video he used in a TED talk shows a pair of capuchin monkeys in adjoining cages offering a human experimenter a token in return for a piece of fruit. One monkey gets a much desired grape in return for its “work” in earning the token in the first place; the other gets a piece of cucumber, which capuchins are not so impressed by. The monkey that gets the cucumber looks across at the other monkey and its grape, immediately displaying outrage by throwing the cucumber at the experimenter and shaking the bars of its cage with frustration.
The peeved monkey was showing the very human response to not being treated fairly. In all human societies, the fairness principle is valued and taught, even if it is not always applied. It is a key feature of human psychology and morality. What the experiment with the capuchins shows is that something like this basic feature of human psychology and morality also exists in members of a primate lineage that separated from our own more than 40 million years ago.
And the presence of “superior” human mental attributes is not confined to animals that are relatively close to us in the evolutionary scheme of things. Elephants, for example, can classify humans by age, gender and language. New Caledonian crows make elaborate tools, shaping branches into pointed, barbed termite-extraction devices. Western scrub jays hide caches of food for later use – anticipating what they will need in the future, rather than acting on what they need now. Even the seemingly lowly octopus uses coconut shells as tools.
The findings of de Waal and others have reported put paid to the age-old concept of the “ladder of nature”, which has God on the top rung, angels a step below followed in order by men, women and children. Then came animals ranked from the noble beasts to the lowliest insects.
As well as being a quasi-scientific picture, the ladder of nature was also a moral and political one. It was only natural that creatures higher up would assume dominion over those lower down.
The ladder also implies the superiority of human intelligence. But science is discovering that intelligence or cognition in the natural world is more like a bush than a ladder. There is not a single, hierarchically ordered intelligence but many different “intelligences” that are not necessarily comparable to ours and may even be superior for certain purposes. Do you think you could remember the location of hundreds of buried acorns in the way squirrels can, for example? Or can you match the perception of your surroundings with the same exquisite precision as an echo-locating bat?
De Waal opens our minds to the idea that animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed and challenges us to accept that our minds and the minds of animals have far more in common than we may realise.
The title de Waal has given his book is, Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? Even if we are smart enough, there is another question we need to ask: Are we humble enough?
Humility is not having grovelling or debasing thoughts about oneself. Rather, it is being free of pride and inordinate self-love in its many forms – selfish ambition, conceit, intolerance and closed-mindedness, to name a few. A lack of humility is the handmaiden of arrogance and arrogance coupled with ignorance is a major stumbling block to human progress on every front.
The ideological and social divisions that are so alarmingly obvious in today’s world are all underpinned by ignorance and arrogance – the one fuelling and sustaining the other. Arrogance obstructs empathy and a desire to understand the other; the resulting ignorance then opens the way to misunderstanding, intolerance, contempt, fear and often hate.
That is why humility is so important for human well-being and survival. It is equally crucial for our relationship with the natural world.
The Ladder of nature and the arrogant perception of human superiority that it fosters have to be totally expunged from our thinking and replaced with both intellectual and moral humility. Intellectual humility opens our minds and moral humility opens our hearts.
A good starting point for this transformation is to approach nature as one might approach a great teacher. Indeed, the natural world is one of life’s greatest teachers, if we know how to learn from it.
Jane Goodall, another world-renowned primatologist, helps us to understand what that means. She testifies that her research into chimpanzees, spanning 30 years, would not have succeeded had she not abandoned the aloof posture of the dispassionate scientist in favour of drawing as close to her subjects as possible. She loved the chimps, named them, and cultivated their trust and only then, she insists, was she able to learn from them and about them. Jane Goodall succeeded because she submitted herself humbly to world she sought to understand.
Few of us are seeking to relate to the natural world as scientists. But all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, stand to be enriched by approaching nature with humility. As Frans de Waal’s work demonstrates, such an approach keeps us alive to the possibility that our expectations about nature may be wrong and that we should look forward to being surprised.
More than this, it can also leave the way open for nature to teach us a great deal not only about itself but also about who and what we are.