Smarter than we think

I love stories like this.

The “Wow-ee!” response of the scientists involved would make for an interesting study, as well as the “maybe it’s the first example of invertebrate tool use but maybe it isn’t” facet of the story.

Everything is smarter than we think and has the prospect of becoming smarter, including us, if we could just get over thinking we’re smarter than we actually are.

Here’s another octopus story.

Took Otto’s wardens long enough to figure out what was going on.

Here’s a story about barn swallows you might have seen.

My experience with octopi is unfortunately limited (thanks to a high school guidance counselor), but I’ve watched swallows for hours €”barn, cliff, and violet green.   They exhibit flying skills that shout mental sharpness and high engagement with their surroundings.   Their language, too, is lovely €”soaring phrases and jazzy riffs that light up whatever spaces they breeze through.   Beside white-throated swifts (and, of course, park pigeons) swallows are one of the species of birds that show the greatest tolerance for people’s presence.   Many times they’ve let me in among them while they’ve dipped and whirled very close in.   For me, watching them fly is like watching a group of mathematicians scrawl out geometrical problems at high speed on a three-dimensional blueboard.   Very satisfying for this mind to try to follow.

The debate over animal intelligence is progressing very slowly.   The holdup?   Well, that would have to be €¦ us.   We’re hung-up on wanting to be the smartest creatures on the planet, to play the lead roles on this living, growing, prowling, blossoming, metamorphosing stage.

I’ve had enough experience with animals to suspect strongly that the €œI’m smarter than other species and even smarter than others of my kind € mindset is not unique to people.   I lived with a Siberian husky that definitely thought herself smarter than other dogs (she was) and smarter than I was (yes, at times), and she absolutely believed herself physically superior, to the point of challenging me to follow her in intimidating feats of derring-do.   I’m uncertain how her rangy, forty-pound body supported such an ego.

And the coyote is not cast in folk stories’ trickster roles by happenstance.

But human beings exert more influence upon the world than dogs or coyotes, from our tool-grasping gift for altering the physical environment to our cosmoplastic abilities €”our narrative prowess €”and the effects they bring to bear upon all life.   That we struggle with the question of whether or not animals exhibit intelligence might speak more to shortfalls in our awareness than it does to the question of what’s actually happening around us.   That is, our wonderment over animals’ intelligence and feeling might posit some narrative failure on our part, which means it’s a failure of relationship, narrative being one of the primary approaches we take for exploring and developing connexion.

Furthermore, the slowness of our thinking about other species is not something isolated to our relationship with the nonhuman world.   The levels of imperceptiveness and bad behavior people demonstrate toward nature is but an extension of the bad behavior we exhibit toward each other. Thus any progress we make in our behavior toward nature ought to be paralleled in improvements in how we treat each other, and the other way around.

If we can figure out how better to pay attention €”if we can tune our minds for deeper engagement €”then learning from nature at a higher rate of speed than we do and applying with grace what we learn to humanity’s condition could work out very well for us. For some people, I know it does work that way, as well as the other way around €”nature learns from its contact with us. This is not to say that we’re no different from other species; obviously we are. Perhaps we’re the farthermost extension of an entire system’s quest for greater consciousness; perhaps we’re seeking broader dimensions to creativity–maybe even godhood. We have our narratives to explain who we are and what we’re about, but those can and should change. Jesus initiated a powerful narrative shift, new language–and thus a new way–for being in the world and for being-with-others (including animals) when he broke up the unyielding eye-for-an-eye storylines of the Mosaic Law.

Perhaps we think we can get away more cleanly with careless relationships with the natural world, which we appear to believe has no law or awareness, than we can with mankind, which has an extensive and evolving set of laws governing its behavior along with somewhat heightened consciousness where the well-being of our own kind is concerned. But the abuse, exploitation, destruction, apathy, annoyance, clumsiness, insensibility and so on we display towards nature is not behavior we exhibit only toward nature. If we’re doing it €œout there, € it’s happening inside governments, businesses, communities, and homes in one form or another. We may not be aware what things that we’re doing to each other are destructive, clumsy, etc. We might say, €œThis is the only way to handle this. Nobody knows a better way, so there must not be one. € We might say, €œThis is how it has always been done. €   We have reams and reams of €œlook no further € language arranged in unmoving narratives.   Meanwhile, Otto is shooting out the irritating lights above his aquarium with a highly accurate water pistol.


Because they’re there and he’s there, and because his circumstances changed him to the point where he figured how to change his circumstances.

Is this not one chamber of the heart of the creative mind?


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