I agree with Rick Bogle’s comment after my last posting that what is most surprising about primate intelligence is that so many of us humans haven’t recognized it. I think this egocentric ignorance comes from two things.
The first is the widespread conviction that humans are at the top of the evolutionary tree and that though we may have something in common with other forms of life – like the needs to eat and sleep – we certainly do not share our intelligence with them. Animals, therefore existed beneath us, and principally for our benefit and use. And yet until the scientific revolution, almost everyone recognized our kinship with other living things, and our responsibility to reverence life in whatever form it appeared.
The second reason why we have missed the obvious fact that other living organisms – in my opinion all living organisms – have some form of intelligence began with Newton’s theory of gravity. Newton mechanized the universe, and for almost 400 years Western scientists thought that everything down to the very last atom worked together in a rigid mechanical fashion. When this idea was applied to living things, they were stripped of all meaningful internal functions. Emotions and all forms of thinking, if they were acknowledged at all, were downgraded to strictly physical, observable movements. Even humans were eventually included in this great machine.
It was only at the beginning of the 20th century with Einstein’s theory of relativity, Planck’s quantum mechanics, and Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy that physics retreated from the strictly mechanical model. It took another fifty years for mainstream thinking among psychologists to begin to catch up.
Will we learn to respect life – whether it be lives of those who share our own species or other species – before it is too late? I think it is better to try and fail than to fail without having tried at all.