Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Smarter than the average bear?

A grizzly bear's brain. (From special interest site

Last night a friend replied (via text message) to some belabored joke I'd made (via text message) implicating dill pickles in the HUAC sessions, saying "Patrick, you are smarter than the average bear."

I don't know about that. Is it the mark of an intelligent man to be thrown for a loop by some conversational callback to a cartoon animal from the Dark Age of American Animation?

Smarter than the average bear. What does that mean, anyway? I'm not certain that human intelligence and ursine intelligence are commensurable magnitudes. Let's ponder this for a minute.

I can refer to the narrative we customarily call "American history" more accurately than a brown bear can. I can operate small electronic communication devices more dexterously than a brown bear. And I can play video games better than a brown bear (though it might depend on the game). But I can think of no realistic situation where any of these things would matter very much to a brown bear.

I can do things a socialized human being can do better than a brown bear. (We could substitute the term "socialized" with "trained," as we would use to qualify a rat that can race through a maze  as a consequence of certain contingencies of reinforcement in its history.) But I have no doubts that a brown bear is better at doing the stuff at which brown bears excel. If I were stripped naked and airdropped into the Alaskan wilderness, hundreds of miles from any other human beings or human settlements, I doubt I would last as long as the average bear, which is able to carry out the imperatives of survival in the same environment. (I can think of certain situations in which being able to survive in the wilderness without any prefabricated tools or shelter might matter very much to the average human.)

Maybe we should get to the bottom of what we mean when we say "intelligent." The first definition of "intelligence" in the Oxford US Dictionary reads:
The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.
So: intelligence refers to a conflation of two different—and not necessarily related—characteristics:

1.) The capability to operate effectively in a certain environment or environments. Without delving into the niggling semantics of "operate effectively," the meaning of this should be obvious, as is the consideration of the environment as a factor. We often accept, as far as human beings are concerned, that there are different kinds of intelligence, better and worse suited for a variety of different situations. Neil deGrasse Tyson can perform quite adequately in an observatory or a laboratory (as evidenced by the social rewards his work in these settings has earned him), but he might not be quite so effective in the cockpit of a 747 with a malfunctioning autopilot system, inside the kitchen at a busy four-star restaurant in Manhattan, or out in the hinterlands of Afghanistan. By the same token, if we took two different entities—say, Nikola Tesla and a sea urchin—and assigned them the task of going fifteen feet underwater without any external apparatuses, sitting in the same place for hours at a time, and subsiding on algae and decaying plant and animal matter for as long as they lived, it's likely that only one of the pair would succeed for any appreciable length of time. The sea urchin probably hasn't internalized Maxwell's Laws to any practical ends or constructed an earthquake machine, but its species seems to be doing pretty well for itself anyway.

2.) The capacity to acquire new modes of behavior. This should also be self-explanatory, and it is here that human beings do excel over every other known animal. Our excellence at at learning new tricks is unsurpassed. (The decisive trick has been devising methods of committing previously learned tricks to cultural posterity. Isaac Newton had to discern the physical laws that bear his name from the bare facts just the one time; the rest of us can attain a knowledge of them without need for very much time, trouble, or epochal genius. But we digress.)

The ability to learn new tricks is not restricted to human beings. Our friend the brown bear utilizes fishing techniques in which he was probably instructed by his mother during his adolescence. If he's particularly lucky or clever, maybe he's figured out some other methods through observation and experience (read: contingencies of reinforcement).

Human beings learn a far, far wider variety of tricks during their much, much longer adolescence. (It doesn't matter which other species we're comparing ourselves to. We learn more tricks, and we mature more slowly.) We're really happy about this. We hold this particular characteristic of ours in such high esteem that we tend to disdain critters than don't learn tricks. By the same token, the animals we regard as being "intelligent" are those in which we recognize signs of the qualities we're so pleased with ourselves for possessing.

"I don't eat pigs. It's cruel. They're as smart as dogs, you know." (We say dogs are intelligent because we can teach them tricks, and because their "emotions" seem more evident and more recognizably human-ish to us than those of, say, crows or toads or mice. [Quote marks placed because of our tendency to regard emotions as mental phenomenon rather than bodily states.])

"I can't eat octopuses anymore. Octopuses are intelligent. We've observed them manipulating objects and learning tricks." (Human beings believe manipulating objects is just the coolest thing, and the provenance of this belief is their own aptitude for manipulating objects.)

"It's okay to eat oysters. Oysters are stupid. Who ever heard of an oyster doing anything interesting?"

We preferentially judge animals for exhibiting human-seeming attributes. We pride ourselves on being clever; we have an affinity (albeit a condescending one) for animals that appear to be clever in the same ways we imagine ourselves to be clever.

It is to the credit of the oysters (and the thousands of other stupid animal species) that they never got it into their laughably small brains to learn to develop atomic weapons, radically alter the global climate for their own convenience, or conclude that a paradigm of perpetual "disruption" is an unalloyed boon for everyone involved. Human intelligence takes the ribbon for producing dangerous and stupid (and very fast) things.

When we counter this by pointing out all the useful and beautiful things human beings have devised, we should keep in mind that the things we're most likely to name are useful and beautiful solely to human beings.

So: humans are more intelligent than everything else because humans are better at learning to make and do things that are interesting to humans. The majority of these things exist to the harm of most other animal species in their vicinity (cockroaches, rock doves, and rats are some notable exceptions), but these animals aren't smart enough to submit complaints in such ways that are sufficiently interesting to humans to warrant their interest. Too bad for them.

Granted, every animal pursues its own preservation and propagation at the expense of neighboring, competing, or prey species, but the aggregate tends towards equilibrium.

The brown bear had sense enough to adapt to its environment, and to submit to the regulating factors within that environment. Homo sapiens adapted its environment to itself (which might be a redefinition or extension of what we previously called its decisive trick) and this is one of the reasons it finds itself able to have such a relatively easy time of things and can congratulate itself on being so outstandingly clever as to perform so well at such a diverse range of activities.

Of course, by freeing ourselves from the pressures of an aggressively heterogeneous environment, we've also negated its immediate regulating factors. This is where fast comes into play: the consequences of global anthropization (and the speed with which it has been occurring) are accruing more rapidly than we can apprehend them, let alone respond with much efficacy. (Earlier we mentioned Neil deGrasse Tyson, who incidentally made a few public comments on this topic just yesterday.)

And perhaps here we arrive at the question of the difference between ursine and human intelligence. Bears shit in the woods; human beings shit in the woods, the seas, the plains, the marshes, the rivers, the deserts, the tundras, the jungles, the valleys, the caves, and the mountains.

We shit where we and everything else eats, and we do this by virtue of our superior intelligence.

In the end I finished my beer and texted back "lol."


  1. I'd say that if you or I studied wilderness survival for some extended period of time, you would eventually be able to survive in Alaska at least on par with a bear, if not perhaps better, at least until the bear starts building a nuclear reactor for energy acquisition and defensive capabilities. The bear, as a comparison, spends all of its life practicing wilderness survival and doesn't get distracted by its own ruminations on the nature of intelligence.

    1. Somehow that reminds me: a friend of mine once told me a snippet of Hindu(?) mythology, but now that I look I can't verify the source. At any rate, it holds (maybe?) that humanity got the worst position in the animals/humans/gods pyramid. The animals know nothing and are fairly satisfied knowing nothing; the gods know nothing and are wholly satisfied; humanity knows just enough to be perplexed, and is never satisfied.

      We know a lot of things, but what the hell we're doing ain't one of them.