Sunday, June 9, 2013

Are humans really superior to animals?

Many of my posts begin with a question, such as the one posed above.  As a scientist, I like to think in terms of questions.  After all, answering questions is how science progresses.  Some questions however, like this one, are not easily answerable.

But before going into this topic, I should explain what inspired me to talk about it.  This past week, I was at a conference in Victoria, BC, Canada.  During the middle of the week, everyone took a break from talking about astronomy, planets, etc.., and a large fraction of us went whale watching.  We got bundled up in these ridiculously heavy jumpsuits and sped out onto the water in a zodiac boat.  While the ride out to sea was incredibly intense and fun from the waves and the wind (hence the jumpsuit), the best part came when we finally stopped and started seeing little spouts of water all around us. We were in the habitat of the Orca (also known more colloquially as the killer whale).

The tour guide started talking, and what I learned about these animals (which are actually technically dolphins and not whales) fascinated me to no end.  These animals are perhaps one of the MOST intelligent species on the planet (besides humans).  First of all, they have a very complex social structure and they communicate with each other through their own language.  In fact, they develop dialects within their own language!  They are also capable of mourning for their dead.  The guide told us a sad story of an Orca who was once killed by a boat propeller.  The other Orcas were so sad after its death that they came back to the same spot every so often to mourn.  They also take good care of their elderly (just like humans), caring for them and feeding them when they are unable to do so themselves.

Being a skeptical scientist, I was not satisfied just taking the word of a tour guide (no offense to tour guides...).  So, I looked up the information he gave us.  Two excellent explanations and stories of Orca intelligence are given here and here.  Basically, everything he said was accurate.  These creatures are extremely intelligent, possibly even self-aware.  One could imagine that given enough time and the right conditions, these creatures could evolve to compete with humans.

Oh, and I shouldn't just mention Orcas here.  Other species are also very very smart, such as elephants, primates, and oddly enough, octopus (this last one always surprises me).

Most of us consider humans to be the most superior animal on the planet because we are the most intelligent.  I am not sure I am one who thinks this way however.  After all, why is intelligence the criterion? Why not speed or agility?

But even if we do allow for intelligence to be the criterion for superiority, where do Orcas and other intelligent animals fall into line?  Maybe they are not AS smart as humans, but they seem pretty damn close.  At the very least, capturing these creatures for our own entertainment in places like Sea World seems like an abomination to me now.  While it is incredibly sad that in 2010, a trainer was killed at Sea World (see this article), one cannot really blame the poor Orca for doing what he did.  How would you feel if you were forced to be in a zoo for your entire life?  I know that I'd probably lose my mind and snap at some point...

So, what's the take away point?  In my opinion, while humans may still be the smartest creatures on Earth, we are definitely not the only intelligent species, and we should keep this in mind as we expand ourselves as a society and interact with our environment.

Besides learning some "sciencey" stuff, this trip allowed for me to expand my knowledge about these beautiful, intelligent, amazing creatures.

Courtesy: National Geographic Society and Gerard Lacz/Animals Animals - Earth Scenes
http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/killer-whale/

2 comments:

  1. Whomever can enact their wishes without resistance is obviously superior

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