Episode 9: The Narcissism of Intelligence


Hi friend,

What’s difference between a two year old human, a pig and a dog? This may sound like a setup for a dubious joke, but it is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Imagine that you would be in charge of educating an artificial intelligence about the differences between these three, what would you say when it asks “apart from the physical appearance and the DNA, which tells all three apart from each other, what are the innate differences between a two year old human, a pig and a dog?”

As I have talked with people around me, there have been many different answers: empathy, complex emotions, the awareness of death, language, creating art, the mirror test… The mirror test is where you test whether an individual who looks at themselves in a mirror recognizes that they see themselves, and not just another individual of the same species. Human babies pass this test sometime around 20 months. It is a learned skill, not something we are born with. There are at least ten other species that have passed the mirror test, including pigs, the Eurasian Magpie and three species of ants. This is not what makes us unique.

Neither is empathy. Human babies show empathic behavior as young as fourteen months, which points to it being an innate trait. But elephants, mice, ravens, gorillas, dogs and pigs all display clear signs of empathy – and whether that is innate or learned matters little. Many animals are aware of death too. Elephants interact with bones of loved ones when they come across them. They clearly mourn their dead, and on rare occasions, even humans who have been kind to them. Dogs who get to say goodbye to their deceased humans stop waiting for the human to come home. Ravens can identify a dead bird, and separate a dead raven from other bird species. And if you can have empathy, you can also have antipathy – a thirst for revenge, which both ravens and elephants display. Crows remember the faces of people that mess with them for at least five years, and probably longer. Back in 2014, as conflicts between man and elephants had driven elephants to desperate measures, one of them tore down a wall in a building where humans lived. The debris ended up on a 10 month old baby, who started crying. The surprised people in the house watched the elephant using its trunk to remove every single piece of debris from the baby, before the elephant ran away. Some animals are better at restraining their anger than many humans.

Language, then? No, this isn’t it either. We know that many animals have rudimentary languages. Some can even lie, like capuchins that have been observed using their call to warn for lions and other big cats, to scare more dominant members away from a bunch of bananas. Capuchins also grasp basic symbolism like currency. Dolphins understand basic grammar and can engage in two-way communication with humans. They even have individual names for each member in a pod, and there is a Swedish company working on translation software between the dolphin and human languages.

And as for complex emotions: many animals can bond with members of other species. Many animals mourn. Ask any person with a dog whether they believe their dog loves them. And if dogs can feel love, why shouldn’t pigs who are equally complex living being, not be able to? If love isn’t a complex emotion, then I don’t know what is. But I do know that the argument about complex emotions isn’t it. Art, then? If you believe animals cannot create art, I dare you to google “Japanese pufferfish art” or check out how the male lyrebird in Australia composes birdsong. Now, you may say: but that’s unintentional art – and in doing that you move the goal posts from “creating art” to “intentionally creating art”. Intentions are really hard to define and test for, and by moving the goal posts we can feel safe in our ivory towers of science, pretending that we humans are objectively more valuable, better and more intelligent than other animals. We have a history of doing that: moving the goal posts so that animals always seem to be less than humans. We’ve used this as an excuse for things that would be considered psychotic mass-murderer behavior that makes Hannibal Lecter look like a well-behaved choir boy, if they were done to humans. We have a long history of using intelligence as an excuse to dominate others. It wasn’t long ago that we were sure that “intelligence” was what separated not only human from animal, but also human from human. The slave trade, the Holocaust, the nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forced sterilization of people in Europe during the 20th century – there are many examples of when “intelligence” was used in the worst imaginable ways by humans against other humans. In the slave trade and the Holocaust, intelligence was denied specific humans to dehumanize them. In the nuclear bombs, the intelligence of a bunch of humans was used to build devices capable of destroying life on earth as we know it.

We have long bundled consciousness and intelligence into the same, or at least related, categories and when we have been asked to justify our mistreatment of animals we have asked the clergy of the western world, those who tell us the truths about how the universe works: the scientists. And they said “we must not give human attributes to these simple creatures”. Instead of assuming that animals are like us and looking for differences between us, we started by assuming that animals are unintelligent and unconscious biological automatons without feelings, and then put the onus of proving otherwise on a few scientists, whose results then got questioned since they contradict what the majority of the scientist clergy wants to believe. What we want to believe. The majority of the scientific clergy, that we look to for guidance, were unsure of whether animals really feel pain as late as the 1980s. Veterinarians trained in the US before 1989 were taught to ignore animal pain instead of using anesthetics. We haven’t come far since then. Denmark still allows for fixation of sows, which means that they’re caged lying down, without the ability to move, so that their piglets can suck milk without getting trampled by a stressed mother confined in a space too small to be considered a closet in an average human home. Everyone agrees that this is awful, but Danish pork is a big export and every store and restaurant selling Danish pork hides behind the capitalist mantra “it’s not illegal and we just provide options for our customers”. We, the customers are as much to blame for this as the business owners. Customers that only care about prices deserve companies that only care about profits.

We, the customers, far removed from the suffering that pays for our cheap meat hold on to what we can, we wear our charity coats twice a year, and we scream from behind our doors, say “what’s ours is ours and not yours”, we may have too much but we’ll take our chances, ‘cause god’s stopped keeping score. And we cling to the things they sell us, and we cover our eyes when they tell us.

But hey, the scientific clergy are the most intelligent people in the world, and that makes it right… right?

Collectively we are still stuck in that old, mechanical paradigm when it comes to intelligence. We see intelligence as something individual, centralized: you have your geniuses like Einstein or RuPaul. We see the brain as the center of our intelligence, and what naturally follows is that our brain also becomes the boss of our bodies and every other organ is a subject of the brain. But you could just as well see the stomach, which is older than many parts of our brains, as the boss and the advanced brain is just the stomach’s way of getting more food. My point is: our bodies aren’t hierarchical organizations where the brain is the CEO. They are more like independent networks collaborating without the need of governance. The brain is not the CEO, it’s more of a conductor of a very complex orchestra of organs. The brain isn’t even one single thing, it is in itself a complex system of networks that often are at odds with each other. Just ask someone who is on a diet to lose weight, and in a hungry moment encounters a delicious piece of chocolate cake.


We may acknowledge that being able to improvise a beautiful piece on the piano is a form of intelligence, just like being good at interactions with humans and other animals, or conveying complex emotions through dance, but in our current economic system those are considered less important than type of intelligence we can measure: IQ. Our hierarchies even extend to intelligence. When we talk about a person with a high IQ, we are talking about someone who is good at predicting sequences in “progressive matrices”. Here’s a simplified explanation of how you measure IQ. You get a sequence of frames, and each frame contains one or more objects on a grid. The objects move or change between each frame. By studying the differences in the given sequence of frames, you have to find the pattern for each object, and correctly predict what the last frame in the sequence should be. These patterns become increasingly complex with more objects and more complex patterns. So what we’re testing for in an IQ test, is how good you are at identifying patterns and making predictions. We have gotten intelligence right, and yet so wrong.

You see, everything is patterns. Arrange two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom just so, and you get a water molecule. Arrange enough water molecules just so, and you have a drop of water. Arrange the molecules in another way, and you have ice. Arrange the right atoms just so, then arrange the resulting molecules in the right way and you have organic matter. Arrange that organic matter in the right patterns together with other types of organic matter, and you have a human. Arrange sounds in the right pattern and you have a piece of music, and when you add words in a matching pattern you have a song. This is what life is, being able to spot patterns and act on what you perceive. Unlike a rock that cannot flee a stream of lava about to swallow it, even the simplest of organisms can move away from threats and move towards growth in the form of food. That basic drive of life stays with the organism as it evolves over billions of years, and as it becomes more complex, so does this basic drive. The drive to move away from threats becomes “living in fear” and the drive to move towards growth becomes “living in love”. Somewhere on this evolution timeline, it becomes aware of itself, and in a narcissist era tinted with megalomania decides that it is the most intelligent thing on earth, the crown of creation, the very reason that the universe was created. The ability that got us here was to be able to predict patterns: combining understanding for the pattern of the seasons with the pattern of the life-cycle of wheat allowed us to farm. Understanding the pattern of an infectious disease allows us to take precautions so we don’t get infected. Understanding the pattern of fire allows you to safely start your own. Understanding your own behavior patterns can help you break unwanted habits, and more easily create new ones.

Flavors are patterns, and so a good chef is good at knowing which patterns to combine to create new and more interesting patterns. Stories are patterns. Each story weaves a pattern, and sometimes the storyteller weaves several patterns, one is the obvious one that makes the reader believe something, and the hidden one with the actual truth. Professor Snape from Harry Potter is a perfect example of this. Sometimes the storyteller weaves a pattern that at the end, in one scene, is turned inside out and like an origami postcard reveals an even more complex pattern. Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects is a great example here. And if you see movies as patterns, Inception becomes a fractal pattern, with four patterns nested inside each other, each moving faster than the previous.

Patterns really are a part of intelligence, and intelligence is a result of patterns, but we cannot objectively measure anything else than IQ and so we worship one type of intelligence over others. We believe that we owe our dominance over the planet and the life here to that intelligence, the one that allows us to create complex tools like cars, machine guns and smartphones. That intelligence is narcissist, focused on the individual. 65% percent of Americans believe that they are more intelligent than the average person. The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that most of them are wrong, but that doesn’t stop many people who believe themselves intelligent to look down on those they perceive less so.

But that type of intelligence would be nothing if we didn’t work together. No single human could have gone to the moon unless they lived a billion lifetimes. No single human can compete with an orchestra. Nobody knows everything, but together we know a lot. The ability to collaborate effectively is arguably our true intelligence, but that is not unique to our species either. Elephants collaborate in their herds, dolphins in their pods and bees in their hives.

So what is it that separates a two year old human, a pig and a dog? I still don’t know, and if I had to train that artificial intelligence in the difference between these three, I would answer the question like so:

“I don’t know, but we are more alike than different and so we shouldn’t enslave, torture, kill or eat either of them.”

In searching for the answer to this question, I have found kindness and respect towards life in general and animals in particular. In treating life kinder, I have found that life treats me kinder in return. Or perhaps I’m better at seeing the kindness that life has always been treating me with. I hope you’ll find something worthwhile too when pondering this question. If this episode piqued your interest, check out the website for the transcript where you’ll find some bonus material. You’ll also find ways of supporting this podcast, like leaving a review on iTunes or becoming a mini-mecenate on Patreon. Thank you for listening, friend. Sleep well, until you wake up.

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