Monday, September 10, 2018

The Smartest Animal

My wife and I joke that our dog must think we're idiots. It can sometimes take an hour, for instance, to make us understand that it's time for a walk. She'll make eye contact, meaningfully, and hold it. She'll run to the door trying to get us to follow her. She'll paw us. We're quite certain that she attempts to control our minds with her psychic powers. And then, finally, we get it. She loves us, of course, but ultimately, from where she sits, we're just a couple of sweet little puddin' heads, almost impossible to train properly.

As a boy, it blew my mind to understand that human beings were animals too. "The smartest animal," we would say, substantially more intelligent than chimpanzees or dolphins which were said to be a distant second. I've lately been reflecting on this species-centric prejudice. There are things that dogs, chimps, and dolphins know about our universe that I can never know. Dogs, for instance, have a much better developed sense of smell, they can "read" with their noses. I imagine they are capable of "seeing" the past, both recent and distant, through their olfactory sense, piecing together the story of what happened on this very spot in a way that is inconceivable to we mere humans. When I watch our dog strain and whimper in her desire to get closer to the other dogs we see on the street, almost in despair over not being permitted to share a moment of intimacy or frolic with that "stranger" who is, to her mind, her next best friend, I can't help but wonder if this is a more intelligent response than the ones humans tend to have to strangers on the street, which is to, at best, exchange tight smiles.

I mean, if we're so brilliant, why are we the only animal to turn our environment toxic? Why are we the only ones to fight wars? Why do we burden ourselves with possessions or worry ourselves over money or fret ourselves over social snubs? From the perspective of a dolphin, I would think that we appear pretty idiotic. By the same token, when our dog joyfully rolls in something stinky, I don't see that as a genius move.

Intelligence, obviously, is a matter of perspective. It can't be measured by universal standards, but rather by perception and values. And these things vary not just by species, but also within species. It also varies by age and experience. We often speak of the wisdom of children, but I think too often it's applied as an honorific. After all, we're the adults, sure sometimes kids say or do things that make us take notice, but in the end we're the ones who really know what's what: we're really the smartest humans. And it's from this stance that we think it's incumbent upon us to decide, on the children's behalf, what it's important for them to learn, when they are to learn it, and sometimes even how it is to be learned. We decide they ought not roll in something stinky, we dismiss their fascinations as cute but juvenile, and all too often insist that we are right and they are wrong because, in our hubris, we believe we are "the smartest animal."

The intelligence of children is not lesser or lower than my own. As an important adult in their lives, it isn't my job to shape or steer them so that they will some day think like me, but rather to provide the time, space, support, and human connection, that will allow them to engage the world according to their own unique perceptions and values. I am to take their intelligence seriously, to hold it on par with my own. Indeed, I expect that if we could genuinely learn to respect the intelligence of children, we could, in a single generation, fix many, if not most of the problems that grow from our adult ignorance.

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