Can we absolutely argue that humans are the Earth’s most intelligent creatures? To what extent does that distinction rely on what we count as “smart”?
Are sheep smart? Many would argue that they are not, but most of these individuals have never lived with sheep; they “heard from someone…” Sheep truly will “follow the flock” even when that doesn’t make much sense, but when that dedication to following protected them beautifully for millennia 99% of the time, maybe it isn’t as crazy as it seems. I don’t know about other breeds of sheep, but our Gulf Coast Native sheep simply must have some wits about them. The Spanish brought them to the New World in the 1500’s, and large flocks would be left on their own for the majority of the year and rounded up on rare occasions as needed. There is a limit to how unintelligent you can be when you are delicious and vulnerable and your only defenses are a) stomping a small hoof angrily like a petulant child and b) fleeing, but not nearly as deftly as, say, a deer.
Professor Jenny Morton, a neuroscientist at University of Cambridge, says sheep have been greatly undervalued for their intelligence. "I didn't expect them to be so amenable to testing and certainly didn't expect them to be so smart. In our tests they performed at a level very similar to monkeys and humans in the initial learning tasks.”
But an issue that arises with all our tests of intelligence is this: we define intelligence in terms of how close that animal matches our human ideal of what intelligence is. We label dogs “smart” when they can detect the faintest hint of explosive material on someone at the airport, something we find useful. But we don’t often recognize dogs as brilliant for merely possessing a mind-blowing ability to distinguish scents; it is only when that ability is bent to our benefit that we relent. Sheep have a highly honed aptitude for discriminating between individual blades of grass, a palatable one next to a potentially dangerous one, using the fine hairs on their muzzles; can you do that? Such a highly refined ability to separate the nutritious from the deadly seems like quite a valuable skill. In comparison, humans aren’t nearly so “smart”. But then again, I am much better with semi-colons than any of our ewes, so there’s that.
Our ideas about “smart” extend to humans who differ from the norm as well. Humans have held a very narrow view of what it means to be a “smart” person. But in recent years the neurodiversity movement has begun to reconsider those individuals whose brains differ substantially from the norm due to Down’s Syndrome, Asperger’s, autism, and the many other ways a brain might be wired differently. Might this diversity, formerly seen as purely negative, bring something important and wonderful to the table?
The Autism Acceptance Month website notes, “Neurodiversity is a natural form of diversity, found in every human society. It is similar in many ways to other forms of diversity, such as ethnic, racial, cultural, sexual, or gender diversity. Like these other forms of diversity, neurodiversity can enrich a society or community that embraces it.” And as John Elder Robison, an adult with Asperger’s notes, “There is no question neurodiverse people have brought many great things to human society…There’s that also no question that group homes and other institutions are filled with people whose gifts remain hidden. When 99 neurologically identical people fail to solve a problem it’s often the 1% fellow who’s different who holds the key.”
In our rapidly changing society, perhaps neurologically diverse individuals can see solutions or model ways of being that will indeed be key. What would it look like if we went out of our way to discover and support each individual’s neurological gifts and unique personalities rather than expecting every person (and every animal) to conform to a narrow definition? Maybe it’s time we broaden what we mean when we label both humans and animals as “dumb” or “smart.”