Frans de Waal has written a fascinating book about animal intelligence, "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?"
I'm only a little ways into the book, but what I've read so far has gotten me to thinking about how religions view humans -- as animals, or as a non-animal species?
Here's a passage from the prologue that makes clear how de Waal looks upon this question.
In all this, we love to compare and contrast animal and human intelligence, taking ourselves as the touchstone. It is good to realize, though, that this is an outdated way of putting it.
The comparison is not between humans and animals but between one animal species -- ours -- and a vast array of others. Even though most of the time I will adopt the "animal" shorthand for the latter it is undeniable that humans are animals.
We're not comparing two separate categories of intelligence, therefore, but rather are considering variation within a single one. I look at human cognition as a variety of animal cognition.
Naturally this is true. Humans are indeed animals of the primate variety. We're close relatives to chimpanzees, with whom we shared a common ancestor about six million years ago.
Genetically, we share more than 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos. From this perspective, chimpanzees are mostly human and vice versa. But, in genetics, some changes matter more than others. That 1-plus percent of DNA that differs between our species has obviously led to some fairly significant changes.
Yet religions usually look upon humans as separate and distinct from other animals. Supposedly we are made in God's image, while chimps aren't, even though scientifically-minded religious believers have to grapple with the notion that God created chimps with 98% of our DNA.
As de Waal says in the passage above, there isn't human intelligence and animal intelligence. There is just intelligence, which comes in lots of different forms depending on what a species needs to know in order to survive and prosper. Here's another passage from the book.
But why stop at the primates when we are considering cognition? Every species deals flexibly with the environment and develops solutions to the problems it poses. Each one does it differently.
We had better use the plural to refer to their capacities, therefore, and speak of intelligences and cognitions.
This will help us avoid comparing cognition on a single scale modeled after Aristotle's scala naturae, which runs from God, then angels, and humans at the top, downward to other mammals, birds, fish, insects, and mollusks at the bottom.
Comparisons up and down this vast ladder have been a popular pastime of cognitive science, but I cannot think of a single profound insight it has yielded. All it has done is make us measure animals by human standards, thus ignoring the immense variation in organisms' Umwelten [worldview].
It seems highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to ten if counting is not really what a squirrel's life is about. The squirrel is very good at retrieving hidden nuts, though, and some birds are absolute experts.
The Clark's nutcracker, in the fall, stores more than twenty thousand pine nuts, in hundreds of different locations distributed over many square miles; then in winter and spring it manages to recover the majority of them.
That we can't compete with squirrels and nutcrackers on this task -- I even forget where I parked my car -- is irrelevant, since our species does not need this kind of memory for survival the way forest animals braving a freezing winter do.
So we need to stop looking at animals as being inferior to humans. They are different from us, not inferior. This is one reason we shouldn't eat them.
I've been a vegetarian for over fifty years, with my last bite of another animal species coming when I looked at a prawn on my plate while I was in college and realized, "That used to be swimming around in the ocean, enjoying its prawn life, until it was killed so I could eat it."
At that moment I felt a kinship with my fellow animals that caused me to vow never to eat fish or meat again. Which, I haven't.