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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 304

Justin Gregg — If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity

If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity (book cover)

Shermer and Gregg discuss:

  • intelligence/stupidity: “there’s good reason to tone down our smugness. Because, depending on where we go from here, human intelligence may just be the stupidest thing that has ever happened.”
  • dolphins
  • artificial intelligence
  • language
  • rationality
  • moral systems
  • comparative thanatology (cross species awareness of death)
  • “causal inference” vs. “learned associations”
  • Humans as “why specialists.” We need to look for causal connections — leading to some incredible achievements but also to some bizarre practices. Gregg points to the old medieval remedy of rubbing a rooster’s keister on a snakebite wound.
  • Death awareness: “The day-to-day consequences of death wisdom” — grief, dread, nihilism, mental and emotional anguish — “really do suck. I believe that animals … do not suffer as much as we do for the simple reason that they cannot imagine their deaths.”
  • Why animals do not commit genocide: Surveying the chickens in his yard, Gregg correctly predicts that they’re highly unlikely to “unite en masse to rain death down upon the world in pursuit of glory for the Great Chicken Nation.” Humans, though, are another matter. “Narwhals do not build gas chambers.”
  • “Prognostic myopia”: “the human capacity to think about and alter the future coupled with an inability to actually care all that much about what happens in the future. It’s caused by the human ability to make complex decisions availing of our unique cognitive skills that result in long-term consequences. But because our minds evolved primarily to deal with immediate — not future — outcomes, we rarely experience or even understand the consequences of these long-term decisions.” Our “shortsighted farsightedness is an extinction-level threat to humanity.”
  • consciousness and sophisticated consciousness: animals and humans
  • free will and determinism
  • pleasure vs. happiness vs. purposefulness.

“If Nietzsche had been born a narwhal, the world might never have had to endure the horrors of the Second World War or the Holocaust.”

“Nietzsche both wished he was as stupid as a cow so he wouldn’t have to contemplate existence, and pitied cows for being so stupid that they couldn’t contemplate existence.”

“We can, and often do, use our human intellect to divine the secrets of the universe and generate philosophical theories predicated on the fragility and transience of life. But we also can, and often do, harness those secrets to wreak death and destruction, and twist those philosophies to justify our savagery. With an understanding of how the world has been built comes the knowledge to break it. Humans have both the capacity to rationalize genocide and the technological competence to carry it out.”

Justin Gregg is a Senior Research Associate with the Dolphin Communication Project and an Adjunct Professor at St. Francis Xavier University where he lectures on animal behavior and cognition. Originally from Vermont, Justin studied the echolocation abilities of wild dolphins in Japan and The Bahamas. He currently lives in rural Nova Scotia where he writes about science and contemplates the inner lives of the crows that live near his home.

About the Book

If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal overturns everything we thought we knew about human intelligence, and asks the question: would humans be better off as narwhals? Or some other, less brainy species? There’s a good argument to be made that humans might be a less successful animal species precisely because of our amazing, complex intelligence.

All our unique gifts like language, math, and science do not make us happier or more “successful” (evolutionarily speaking) than other species. Our intelligence allowed us to split the atom, but we’ve harnessed that knowledge to make machines of war. We are uniquely susceptible to bullshit (though, cuttlefish may be the best liars in the animal kingdom); our bizarre obsession with lawns has contributed to the growing threat of climate change; we are sexually diverse like many species yet stand apart as homophobic; and discriminate among our own as if its natural, which it certainly is not. Is our intelligence more of a curse than a gift?

As scientist Justin Gregg persuasively argues, there’s an evolutionary reason why human intelligence isn’t more prevalent in the animal kingdom. Simply put, non-human animals don’t need it to be successful. And, miraculously, their success arrives without the added baggage of destroying themselves and the planet in the process.

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This episode is sponsored by Wren and Wondrium:

Wren (sponsor)
Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on November 1, 2022.

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