We may think we know what intelligence is. After all, human intelligence is what enables us to read intriguing nonfiction books such as If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity by animal behavior and cognition researcher Justin Gregg, who works with the Dolphin Communication Project at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. But as Gregg makes clear in his engaging third book, we might not know as much as we think about intelligence. In fact, we might be entirely wrong in our assumptions. It might be time to seriously question “human exceptionalism” and what it means for our species and our planet. To do that, Gregg sets out to answer the question “What good is human intelligence?”
The author begins with a chapter about humans as “why specialists.” Anyone who has been in the presence of a toddler will recognize the “Why?” stage of development. While we may automatically assume that this ability to ask—and discover answers to—every question under the sun is uniformly positive, Gregg asks us to look at this human characteristic through a different lens: “I propose we consider a provocative premise: does asking why give us a biological advantage?” Gregg then takes readers on a time-travel expedition, from 240,000 years ago until today, to demonstrate why certain qualities associated with human intelligence have not, evolutionarily speaking, benefited either our species or the Earth. When humanity’s answers to “why questions” are wrong, Gregg explains, they lead to some truly terrible outcomes, including white supremacy and genocide.
Gregg takes readers on a wide-ranging, entertaining journey of discovery in If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal, challenging them to reexamine their assumptions about animals and humans. Along the way, he explores aspects of human experience (such as language use, morality, awareness of death and our capacity to wonder about virtually everything in the universe) and reveals ways in which nonhuman animals experience consciousness themselves. All together, If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is a timely, thought-provoking and often sobering book that will make you look at humans, animals and the future of our planet with new eyes.