Sunday, August 31, 2008

Brett the Vet - Who’s a Clever Boy?

Asking the wrong questions to evaluate the intelligence of animals often misleads us into assuming predictably unsatisfactory answers.

Usually we take what is known about human mental processes and look for comparable processes in other species, and try to measure how intelligent animals are in the same ways as humans.

This attitude is not very complimentary about the extent and capacity of human understanding or imagination. Animals aren't particularly interested in knowing more about us.

'Intelligence' means the ability to understand, learn, and think things out quickly; 'smart' the ability to adapt; 'clever' the ability to adapt creatively. These days our interpretation of intelligence has expanded into other spheres beyond IQ to embrace many types of intelligence as being equally valid.

With our greater understanding we are also starting to realise almost by surprise, and not without indispensable scientific proof, that animals are intelligent. The prevailing, arrogant assumption that animals are dumb until proven otherwise precludes the common sense approach of accepting their inherent natural intelligence.

It is limiting to impart a reflective interpretation of animal intelligence. From the clever cat painting pictures, to the smart dog walking on two legs, to the piglet playing computer games, people perpetually marvel at the anthropomorphic exploits of animals, and ridicule their ostensible shortcomings. Natural intelligence is often widely misunderstood because it encompasses all the systems of control in biology.

Animals left to their own niche and devices have adapted by 'survival of the fittest'. As long as sheep follow or horses shy, pigs wallow or geese fly, instincts enable exquisite intelligence.

When we intervene and make a mockery of nature by imposing demeaning conditions on animals like batteries for hens or crates for pigs, they are reduced to a commodity. The 'dumbing down' affecting modern civilisation has inadvertently been imparted to the domestic animals. Selective breeding, restrictive living, and manipulated behaviour are draining their resilience.
The consequence is dependence on human intervention such as the reduction of instinctive smothering ability in dairy cows and laying hens, or the inability to breed naturally in some dog breeds.

It is astounding that highly intelligent animals concede to performing humiliating tricks people consider to be clever. An elephant standing on a ball, a dolphin diving through a ring of fire, a parrot saying 'hello' repeatedly every day during its years of solitude. The level of trust displayed by domesticated species towards humans is staggering and begs the unanswerable question.

Retaliation is not a feature in the implicit natural order. The balance is redressed in a closed system. As the ancient human cultures that revered nature slip away and modern humans plunder the planet's resources, destroy natural habitats, churn out carbon, and continue to make the earth less habitable, we are experiencing the effects manifest in a world where everything is connected.

Fighting nature leads to the destruction of life. To salvage what remains requires a creative mind shift into unfamiliar territory: to think from a different perspective.

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