I’ve always struggled with how to classify a species as intelligent or not. It must be simple and applicable across any expected type of life, not just the ones we have so far encountered on earth.
I would normally classify YouTube as the antitheses of a thought-provoking blog but was stunned the other day when my son sent me a link to “I’m a Stupid Cat” that got my mind racing on this subject.
It is the typical “funny cat” video set to music and lyrics (language warning) and although it is not precisely anti-cat propaganda it does highlight the innocence of a domesticated cat’s life.
Hidden amongst the profanities and humorous anecdotes was a startling observation that “[cats] don’t even know they’re going to die.”
And it was precisely this quote that struck a chord with me.
Is it this quality, an understanding of time and personal mortality, that defines an intelligent species?
It is also interesting to note that our species is taxonomically known as Homo sapiens, Latin for “knowing man”.
A little research turned up an article on The Daily Galaxy entitled “The Planet’s Other “Intelligent” Species: Do Dolphins Have a Sense of the Future?” At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the Dolphin could very well [have] got the upper hand on her human trainers… or pets?
All the dolphins at the center are trained to retrieve trash that has mistakenly fallen in to their pools. Upon seeing a nearby trainer, they are to take said trash to the trainer. In return, they receive a fish for their cleanliness.
However it seems that Kelly has found a loophole in the system, and is exploiting it to interesting ends. She hoards her trash, underneath a rock at the bottom of her pool, and when she sees a trainer she goes down and removes a piece of paper or trash to get her fish. However she won’t use all her paper at once, instead she holds on to them for the future.
It is an interesting behavior, considering that it is very much like humans storing food for the winter; it displays an awareness of tomorrow.
I’m not discussing the intelligence of this animal or that but each entire species and it is not useful to quote a single specific example such as the dolphin “Kelly” above, otherwise one could use a human baby as proof that Homo sapiens do not pass this test.
The quality must be inherent in the mature species and only absent by exception.
Although René Descartes is credited as the father of analytical geometry (the bridge between algebra and geometry), crucial to my work as a spatial scientist, he is perhaps best known for the philosophical statement:
“Cogito ergo sum” (French: Je pense, donc je suis; English: I think, therefore I am) - in part IV of Discourse on the Method (1637)
Which also harks back to the classification of our species as “Knowing Man”.
So…is the comprehension of time and mortality (or more colloquially: do they know they’re going to die) a valid way to classify a species as intelligent or not?
…and what does this mean for us and these other intelligent species? Are they to be protected? Are they exempt from use as a source of materials or food? And are they also unsuitable for use as involuntary manual labour or entertainment?