I find myself wondering more about the extent to which we’re innately biased against seeing great intelligence in non-human species.
Plenty of reasons to worry, including our proclivity for doing so even for minor ethnic differences, and even purely for outgroups.
I like to imagine I am fairly self aware of these biases, having written about them, including this...
But I suspect that this is just the tip of the Bias Berg.
Two avenues of research have pushed my view considerably in this regard.
(1) The first shows that crows and parrots have qualitative levels of intelligence of apes, and
(2) The second is my own “nature-harnessed” research arguing that language (and arts like music) are not part of our biology, but, rather, cultural artifacts harnessing ancient instincts.
Together, these suggest that we’re much closer in biological intelligence to apes — and even corvids&parrots — than our unaided intuition would suggest.
I have found myself wondering about the following thought experiment:
Supposing one particular species of, say, bird were biologically the same qualitative level of intelligence as humans, how difficult would it be for us to truly realize it?
For starters, let’s add some sci-fi and make it starker:
Imagine human brains in utero are transplanted into the body of some crows.
(And somehow they function as crows, etc. Don’t think too deep about this counterfactual or it won’t make sense.)
Would it be obvious to people that these crows are...
~ smarter than other crows?
~ as smart as people?
~ basically people, in crow bodies?
My bet is that it would be totally not obvious.
...that it would be practically impossible to tell.
...and that there are hosts of distinct reasons — biases from humans observing them, and necessary behavioral consequences to these “crow-people” by virtue of being raised in crow bodies — that would mask the truth.
But if THAT is the case, then we should be deeply worried that we might be radically underestimating the intelligence of many animal species, especially so the more phylogenetically distant they are from us.
Not that intelligence is the only factor in moral-worth / personhood / rights of animals. But it’s one big one.
I personally killed half a dozen hornet-sized bumblebees this weekend. They were making a home, and scaring the crap out of guests. (Even though docile.)
Surely nowhere near the level of mammals and birds. (Right?)
But, probably also surely much — an order of magnitude? — more intelligent / aware than I may historically have been presuming.
This changes how one looks upon every non-human animal.
As a theoretical biologist I have always appreciated the mind boggling complexity and design.
But even though I’m also a cognitive scientist, my human biases have, I think, prevented me from seeing the truth about all the other minds out there.
The veil is slowly lifting.
This first appeared as a Twitter thread in 2018 at @markchangizi