August 2022

The evolutionary benefits of being stupid

Behind the Book by
Cognitive scientist Justin Gregg extols the virtues of not-so-bright animals.
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I get excited by stupid animals. That is to say, animals that most people consider “stupid,” such as insects or chickens. Once, during a safari trip in South Africa, I shouted for the driver to stop the vehicle so I could get out to chase after a dung beetle. While the other tourists looked on with pity and confusion, I snapped a million pictures of the beetle with tears of joy in my eyes.

I’m simply fascinated by the lives of dung beetles. Or hermit crabs. Or chickens. I am fascinated with how they behave and what this means about the way they think. I am a cognitive scientist by trade, and my main study animal is the dolphin, perhaps one of the most intelligent nonhuman animals on the planet. And yet it’s the unintelligent ones that have truly captured my heart.

Read our starred review of ‘If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal’ by Justin Gregg.

Usually when a scientist studying animals writes a book meant to get the public excited about animal cognition, they focus on all the ways in which animals think and act like humans. I could have written about, for example, how New Caledonian crows are able to create complex tools out of twigs to help them fish insects out of a log. Then I could have framed this fact as “crows are able to make tools just like humans.” This idea of an animal doing something humanlike is inherently appealing. So the obvious approach would have been for me to write a book regaling readers with examples of complex humanlike (or crowlike) behavior in simple animals—such as how dung beetles use the Milky Way to navigate the African plains.

But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted people to get excited about dung beetles for their unintelligence, not their intelligence.

It wasn’t until I had a conversation with my editor, Pronoy Sarkar, that I finally figured out how to do this, and the idea for If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal took shape. It isn’t a book about animal intelligence, per se—or even about animal unintelligence. It’s really more about human stupidity. In it, I call into question the base assumption that human intelligence—our capacity for science and engineering that stems from cognition that is particularly sophisticated and unique to our species—is a good thing. Instead of trying to elevate “stupid” animals by showing how they can think intelligently, I show that thinking intelligently in a humanlike way might actually be a crappy biological solution. Evolutionarily speaking, human intelligence might actually be stupid.

“Evolutionarily speaking, human intelligence might actually be stupid.”

Looking at everything happening in the world today—the conflict in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear war, or the climate emergency, or the deepening political division in many Western democracies—I am honestly concerned about the future of our species. Plenty of pundits are predicting with alarming certainty that the human species is teetering on the brink of extinction—not because of any external forces, such as comets or plagues, but because we are extincting ourselves through carbon emissions and advanced forms of holocaust-inducing warfare. Through things that are, in other words, products of our complex, intelligent way of thinking.

This is precisely why I am asking people to reevaluate the goodness of human intelligence and consider that dung beetles and chickens might in fact be better designed for life on this planet than we are.

I didn’t write this book because I think humans are idiots. We are not. We are exceptional in many beautiful ways and a wonder of evolution when viewed from some angles. But from other angles, the human mind is dangerous—capable of both worrying about and bringing about its own extinction. I wrote If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal not to bash humans but to inspire people to widen their love of the animal kingdom. I want people to walk into their garden and marvel at the creatures in it precisely because they aren’t as smart as us.

“Dung beetles and chickens might in fact be better designed for life on this planet than we are.”

And yes, I also want people to understand that even the traditionally “stupid” animals aren’t actually stupid. Bees and wasps, for example, are far more cognitively complex than most people realize. They have consciousness, emotions and basic math skills. They can problem solve and use tools. They have individual personalities and can recognize faces. They have a lot of the cognitive skills that we used to believe belonged solely to Homo sapiens. But so what? It’s not necessarily a good thing to think like a human. In fact, the simplicity of how insects think makes them far more wondrous.

I really hope people take that lesson to heart and are kinder to the creatures around them. All creatures just want to live a pleasure-filled life for the brief moments that we exist on this planet. Fortunately, you don’t need intelligence to experience joy. And if there’s anything we need more of on this planet right now, it’s joy.

Justin Gregg

Get the Book

If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal

If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal

By Justin Gregg
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316388061

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