Who is the smartest of them all?

It turns out, ironically enough, that designing accurate and  appropriate intelligence tests for animals, tests our intelligence.  Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article by  Frans de Waal about animal intelligence and the difficulties in creating appropriate tests.  Please take a few minutes to read de Waal’s article, it is quite interesting.

We seem to be an insecure species. Notice in de Waal’s article how often the tests are designed to find out if an animal is “smarter” than we are. Who is smarter, the chimp or the child?  Why do you think that is important to us?  One wonders if an elephant could ask us to take their intelligence test what the outcome would be? I don’t think I would do any better in the elephant world than the elephant does in mine. That elephants are intelligent in ways appropriate to elephant life doesn’t seem like something that ought to be threatening to me. Somehow, we seem to have a problem accepting that animals are intelligent. Or self-aware. Or empathetic. Or truly social.

Why do you think that bothers us so much?

In part, perhaps recognizing that animal intelligence exists and exists completely apart from me (elephants and whales live quite nicely without my help) might cause me to have to reconsider my relationship with other animals. If an animal doesn’t need me to take care of them or doesn’t exist for my direct benefit, what am I supposed to “do” about them? (Our relationship with domestic animals is even more complex.)

If we assume that animals are less smart, less self-aware, less able to feel pain, less able to understand their world, do we think that allows us to excuse  poor- even brutal- behavior on our part? If we recognize their different awareness, different intelligence, different understanding of the world, perhaps then, we have to respect those differences.

We are told in Genesis that God has charged humankind to rule over the earth. But how are we to rule? For Christians, it seems we ought to rule like Jesus rules. When we read how the risen Christ acts in the gospels our idea about ruling should be changed. When we read what the prophets have to say about ruling, our idea about ruling should be changed. Can we rule in a way that doesn’t exploit? Can we rule in a way that gives life rather than death?  What would that look like? What would we have to give up? What might we gain?

I’d like to know, what do you think?

5 thoughts on “Who is the smartest of them all?

  1. Interesting. IT seems that a God that can create any form of life (human, plant or animal) would imbue each form life with some sort of intelligence. It seems like we are still asking the question from Matthew 18:1-4 (also Mk 9:33-37 & Lk 9:46-48). And I think Jesus response would be the same. It seems that each life form is placed on this earth not out of competition but just to experience this life fully before we are asked to report on that experience when this life is over. It seems that it’s not about greatness but about wonder and amazement that ultimately leads to knowing. Knowing God.

    1. Yes, appreciating the variety of what God has created. I think it is fascinating the animals live such complex lives. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Does this also distinguish how many interpret the Genesis text differently … that is the difference between being part of the word (and smart enough to care for it) versus it is all here for us to do what we want to do. After all, those different attitudes yield different perspectives.

    1. I think it is all related. How we interpret Genesis, how we think about power, how we think about authority, who we think God is. I think there is a case to be made that the Bible argues for a non hierarchical, more relational understanding of the world and our place in it. which might well be next week’s post. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. I just love animals! And another news… I just found out that Manila Zoo has a cute elephant named Mali, and she is the only elephant in the Philippines! She has lived there for almost all of her lives, for more than 30 years. The zoo should feel like her sweet and cozy home now. But then, I read some articles in PETAAsiaPacific.com, and I noticed that Mali is in fact sad and lonely! Look at her here: https://www.facebook.com/FreeMali. She is like a prisoner, who cannot spend her days with her friends, roam in vast territories, and have delicious adequate food! She even suffers from foot problems. Why does she deserve this? 😦 Please Help Her!

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