October 2021

Someone wrote my article. Has that ever happened to you? You get a perfectly wonderful idea, you start your research, and what happens? You find that someone has written your article. And you can’t even be mad at them because they’ve done it brilliantly. In his article, “ Why do we care how smart animals are?” Mr. Sigal Samuel has done just that: written the article I had thought to write. 

I had planned to explore the concept that the more we discover about the “secret lives” of what we’ve traditionally thought of as lower animals, the more we need to revise our notions of what consciousness and intelligence means. And I had planned to ask what are the implications for humanity if creatures such as slime mold can learn? Or to put it another way: How might we behave differently knowing that many organisms possess abilities, social lives, senses and forms of intelligence we’ve never even considered because we’ve always considered our own to be the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree?

Mr. Samuel wrote that we tend to use intelligence as the metric by which we determine the value of any given plant or animal and that perhaps that might not be the best metric to use. Perhaps it might be better to use sentience or perhaps a species’ intrinsic value to an ecosystem. Or better yet, the value of whole ecosystems. 

The point here is that we continue to be biased by our abilities when measuring animals’ inherent intelligences. For example, squirrels possess an intelligence we don’t: they can bury thousands of nuts and remember where they put them. To compare a squirrel’s math ability to our own becomes a “pointless comparison” because it’s “‘highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to 10 if counting is not really what a squirrel’s life is about.’”

Yet the more we study different organisms, the more we are faced with the conundrums this knowledge brings. To that end, I offer a poem that very loosely summarizes Mr. Samuel’s article and pokes a little fun at Aristotle’s Scala Naturae, or “Natural Ladder”, and its notion that humankind represents the pinnacle of evolution’s so-called march up the evolutionary tree. 

Nature’s Ladder

Nature’s ladder puts me at the top of the pile.
Me with my two eyes that can’t move like a chameleon’s,
Or see miles away like an eagle.

Nature’s ladder puts me at the top of the pile.
Me with my two ears that can’t hear insects like a bat,
Or hear a mouse under the snow as I soar above it like an owl.

Nature’s ladder puts me at the top of the pile.
Me without a fish’s lateral line
Or an octopus’s ability to grow a new limb.

And nature’s ladder puts slime mold at the bottom of the pile.
Slime mold with its lack of brain, eyes and ears
That somehow solves mazes, finds food and learns.

Nature’s ladder also puts fish at the bottom of the pile.
Fish with their little brains living on nothing but instinct
That somehow feels lost when a mate leaves.

And nature’s ladder reluctantly moved crows a little further up the pile.
Crows who showed they had what it takes when they solved complex problems
That somehow we thought only we can solve.

Nature’s ladder also reluctantly moved dolphins a little further up the pile.
Dolphins who showed they had what it takes when they taught skills to their young
That somehow we thought only we can teach.

And nature’s ladder reluctantly moved primates closer to us in the pile.
Primates who showed they had what it takes when they learned our sign language
That somehow we thought only we can learn.

Nature’s ladder left me at the top of the pile.
Me with my brain entombed in bone,
That somehow thinks its view matters the most.

Now nature’s ladder has begun to give birth to a new pile.
A pile where
Slime molds learn,
Fish feel,
Crows solve puzzles,
Dolphins teach their young,
And primates use their own sign language.

A mess to be sure.
No pile to ascend.
No clear dominance.
No easy answers.
Just a resounding question from those in the pile:
Can you see me now?

While we may never see the value in a mosquito or be happy to see a venomous snake, it behooves us to try to see the world from their perspective, if only for our own well-being. And as Mr. Samuel points out, the tradeoffs we will have to make may get a bit messy. “It suggests that the best we can do is look at creatures’ intelligence and sentience and aliveness and relationships to us as clues about their importance. But it doesn’t tell us how to weight those clues and what to do when they conflict.”  

As we begin to reject the notion that we are somehow at the top of the “pile” and try to deal with the ethical mess this brings, we may find that, for now, anthropomorphism may be the best we can do. Hopefully with time and an open mind, we will continue “expanding the circle of moral concern” which may ultimately bring us to a deeper understanding of all life, our own included.