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NEVER MIND: Why do we care how smart animals are? Maybe we shouldn’t

It’s high time we recognize that every species has its own brand of 'smarts'. Each is perfectly adapted to its particular environment and survival needs.

SIGAL SAMUEL: From the 1993 blockbuster Free Willy to the recent Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher, a core premise of the animal rights movement — that intelligent, autonomous creatures deserve our moral concern — has seeped into pop culture. As we’ve learned more about whale language, the movement to save the whales has grown. As we’ve learned that octopuses are brilliant puzzle-solvers and escape artists, the calls to stop eating them have gotten louder. People are rethinking farm animals like pigs, too; as the evidence mounts that pigs are smarter than human toddlers (they can use tools and play video games!), so do the arguments against eating them.

Groups such as the Nonhuman Rights Project even go to court on behalf of chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins. They try to win legal rights for their “clients,” and their arguments are primarily based on the animals’ intelligence. For example, in 2013 the group filed a lawsuit on behalf of Hercules and Leo, two chimps used in lab research, arguing that they have the right to be freed from captivity given their “complex cognitive abilities.” The lawsuit failed. Yet it demonstrated the way some in the animal rights movement have used intelligence to make their case.

But using intelligence as our yardstick for determining how much to care about an animal can too easily lead us astray, in large part because we suffer from an anthropocentric bias: We tend to think something counts as intelligence only when it looks like human intelligence. And if we humans use a faulty yardstick, that has broad implications for animals — from our failure to preserve species to decisions about how we farm and eat them.

“There’s a risk that if we talk in terms of ‘these animals are really smart and therefore we should protect them,’ then we risk reinforcing the idea that you need a certain kind of intelligence in order to be worthy of protection,” said Jeff Sebo, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University. “That might work well for some animals but less well for animals who are intelligent in different ways that we might not notice or appreciate.”

Ever since Aristotle developed the idea of the Scala Naturae, a “Natural Ladder” that classified some animals as higher life forms and others as lower, human beings (at least in the West) have underestimated the cognitive complexity of other species. Take chickens, for example. We’ve assumed they’re unintelligent and depicted them that way — remember the mindless sidekick in Moana and the paranoid bird in Chicken Little? Yet scientists have found that chickens have social lives and maternal instincts and even the ability to do basic math.

It’s not just chickens. The more scientific research we do, the more we learn that creatures ranging from pigs to honeybees are smarter than we’d thought… The primatologist Frans de Waal argues that it’s high time we recognize that every species has its own brand of smarts. Each is perfectly adapted to its particular environment and survival needs. Squirrels, for example, bury nuts before winter and can remember the location of thousands of hiding places…

Sentience is the ability to have conscious experiences like pleasure and pain. Many philosophers — most famously, Peter Singer — argue that sentience, not intelligence, is the right yardstick for moral value, and this view is at the center of today’s broader animal welfare movement… But as with intelligence, humans constantly underestimate the sentience of other species. For example, many people think of fish as emotionally vacant, though recent experimental studies challenge that view. (It turns out romantic breakups really suck, even for fish)…

It makes sense that there would be no easy answers. We humans are ourselves animals, not static brains in vats. So our moral beliefs about other beings are always shaped by our evolving historical, social, and economic conditions, and by our relationships to those beings… Since we know that people are more likely to want to help animals they believe to be intelligent, it may make sense to keep harping on intelligence for now and hope to keep expanding the circle of moral concern. That might look like asking people to care even more about whales and octopuses and Molly the Mallard today, in the hopes that tomorrow they will take the lives of factory-farmed animals — or bats, for that matter — just as seriously. SOURCE…

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