John Burnside: Every day the natural world reveals its intelligence, but humans choose to ignore it

As a child, I was taught to believe that, unlike humans, animals were not intelligent in the usual sense. Instead, they “obeyed” their instincts, each blindly following a limited, hard-wired set of behavioral rules, based on their specific character and needs. Everything was mechanical, there was no thought, no freedom of choice, no judgement.

Since then, thankfully, our thinking about the natural world has become more sophisticated. We’ve started to see that other animals are more actively intelligent than we thought – as evidenced by a recent paper (published in Current biology) by researchers at the University of Exeter, who concluded that perched jackdaws deliberated together for a considerable amount of time about when to take to the air en masse, with the whole herd actively debating through their calls.

“It’s really something spectacular,” notes a member of the Exeter team. “You have this sudden build-up of call intensity. And then from one moment to the next, the sky fills with black birds. The conclusion seems to be that in these communal deliberations, the jackdaws are voting on their best course of action.

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It’s hard to deny that such collective decision-making demonstrates intelligence, but jackdaws are not unique. Throughout the biosphere, integral intelligence is evident, from the emergent order of swarming bees to the ways gorillas deal with grief. Why humans so often choose to overlook this intelligence is mysterious. It may have something to do with the monotheistic roots of our culture; perhaps it is simply the arrogance of an industrial imperium for which everything – from a bird, to a forest, to an ocean – is only raw material. But what we lack is crucial. Intelligence is literally inherent in nature – although to say that does not mean to insist on a simplistic argument on purpose. If we pay attention to how it works, we see that natural intelligence is emergent: spontaneous, expressive, often surprising. And it’s really everywhere.

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The mistake of industrial cultures, however, is to confuse specific and limited skill, as evidenced by certain types of human entrepreneurship, with intelligence. But these two conditions are like chalk and cheese. Intelligence knows what it needs to know and shows itself accordingly. Intelligence, on the other hand, is an open process of inquiry and revelation, of making connections, of constant and focused invention.

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Take the arctic poppy. This delicate little plant is an inhabitant of stony and exposed areas of the Far North. Near the pole, the growing season is short, meaning the arctic poppy must pollinate, set seed, and mature in an exceedingly short amount of time before the season turns. To achieve this, he developed an intricate and carefully crafted flower stalk, which allows the flower to constantly spin, eagerly following the midnight sun around the sky, not missing an ounce of its light and warmth. The other flower stalks can’t do this – but they don’t need to. In response to its surroundings, this poppy has developed extraordinary green engineering, resulting in a structure much admired for its strength and flexibility by human artificers.

It could be argued that such a marvel was born of evolution – which it undoubtedly is – but that only begs the question of what we mean by the term. Surely it is as dogmatic to insist that evolution is purely random as to insist on an external creator. Why not consider the idea that everything in nature stems from an inherent intelligence which, although mysterious to us, need not be supernatural, on the one hand, or purely random, on the other hand. somewhere else ?

Every day, jackdaws, poppies and everything that lives near us reveals that as a species we are not only finding the wrong answers, but asking the wrong questions about what we mean by intelligent life. .

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About Lucille Thompson

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