Which is the cleverest animal?
18 October 2001
As humans, we are born into a natural arrogance that we, above all other creatures on God's Earth, are the end of evolution, the apex of natural development. This view has largely been created and reinforced by the teachings of most religions through time. While some may revere particular animals as holy, in general, the teachings of religions both ancient and modern say that man is greater than 'lower' beasts.
Science too is guilty of bias against non-human creatures. While biologists and animal anthropologists attempt to 'measure' other animal's 'intelligence' using their tried and tested scientific means, they all base their 'measures' on a human perspective. Many of these experiments are based on examining language, or symbol recognition. Another, almost stereotypical, one is to place some poor unsuspecting creature in a maze and see if it finds its way out. Be it language, the recognition of abstract symbols, or finding your way out of glass maze, all of these requirements are human requirements, irrelevant to all other creatures. What these experiments really question is how 'human' are other creatures, not how 'clever' they are.
So then, smart-arse, what is 'cleverness', and how are you going to decide which is the cleverest animal? This is central to the equation. If we say that 'cleverness' is the ability to compose a concerto for flugelhorn and full philharmonic, then few would argue that humans rule the roost. Most other animals couldn't even pick up the pen to draw the delicate opening quaver. That is, of course, an unfair test.
Upon closer examination, the question itself is already loaded. 'Clever' automatically seems to require some sort of intelligence test. It is not the cleverest kid in the class who can run the fastest or punch the hardest. David was cleverer than Goliath because he used his slingshot against the unarmed giant. If the giant was clever, he would have worn a helmet, thus deflecting the potentially lethal blow, and then proceeded to beat David into a throbbing bloody pulp.
Based on this example, a simple test of how clever an animal is would be to have a series of battles, creature against creature, and see how many Davids beat how many Goliaths. In order to make it fair, and somewhat natural, there could be home and away fixtures. Many of these would be pretty academic and would not pull many TV dollars. I doubt many would tune in to watch the return leg of Potbellied Pig vs. Great White Shark, not even to see a fucking big shark suffocating in shallow puddle of mud. Mind you, the first leg wasn't really much battle either, just a pig sinking, really, since the shark wasn't even hungry.
Simple one on one battle, therefore is not an adequate test of cleverness. For a start, herbivores are not likely to put up much of a fight. Most likely, if funds were raised for this type of experiment, the animals in question would probably refuse to fight. The often times debated question, which would win, a penguin or a chicken, would most likely not be much of a scene. If on land, they'd probably just mind each other's business. I wouldn't fancy the chicken's chances in a sea-borne fight, though.
So, if we are to devise a test that does not involve direct fighting, and is not polluted with man's inflated sense of superiority, we need a factor that is common to all animals. The most likely candidate for this factor is survival. This test is based on the process of evolution and adaptation, and the likely results of such a test indicate why these ideas are so distasteful to those of a religious inclination.
Again, picture these tests as a sort of league with home and away fixtures, comparing how different animals survive when placed in different surroundings. The test designers are immediately faced with the dilemma of whether to allow groups of animals to be placed in each environment, or just single ones. Foxes, squirrels, rats and pigeons have all already shown their ability to adapt to natural human surroundings, while TV shows such as Shipwrecked, Survivor and Castaways demonstrate just how badly human beings really do when displaced. And imagine an actual fair test. Those people on those TV shows were given guidance and had time to prepare for their ordeal, and knew that it would only last a short period of time, and really had no chance of not actually surviving. Imagine if, to make it a fair experiment, we just grabbed a bunch of unsuspecting people at random from the public, and thrust them onto an uninhabited island without cameramen supplying cans of beans.
Humans would not come out at all well in a proper test of evolution. The winners would probably be some sort of algae or bacteria, or maybe some kind of cockroach. Not exactly God's prettiest creatures.
So, in that kind of test, humans lose out quite badly. And being a human, I don't like being beaten by a cockroach. I hate cockroaches. But it is a fair test for the best survivor on the planet, which can be the only true test of which is the best animal. A harsh, but fair, test.
I therefore present a slightly different question, but one that could be tested in a much more lighthearted and amusing television series. The test of survival is a test of how adaptable a creature can be. A more fun test is to find out how specialised a creature can be. While humankind as a species is clearly generalist, individually we tend to specialise. The proposed test, therefore, is to find the best animal at a particular task, and the best human at the same, and see which is better. Some things humans aren't very good at in comparison to other animals, like flying or swimming fast. Not good viewing. But others would be much fairer.
Beast vs Man, episode one - Can a Sea Lion catch more fish in its mouth than Simon "Stinky" Jenkins of Number 7, Withmore Crescent, Clitheroe? Find out next Tuesday at 5:30. Don't miss it.