Beyond Human Intelligence

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Both by design and good fortune, I am able to spend most of my afternoons engaging Nature in solitude and without human presence. This activity gives me the opportunity to observe and think about Nature. One of my favorite observing and thinking topics is animal intelligence.  The dictionary says that “intelligence” means “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills”.  In my view, despite our arrogance, we humans are not the only creatures who have that trait.

As I write this, I’m watching various waterfowl hunt for fish in a shallow lagoon that is connected to the ocean’s tides. My favorite, a Snowy Egret, knows to wait for the tide to start ebbing; then face up-current so as to wait for fish to come to him;  use his yellow feet as lures, capture a fish across his beak perpendicular to his throat, shake the fish into a stunned state, flip the fish so that its head is pointing down his throat, swallow the fish, then always clean his beak by swishing it in the water. I’d call these coordinated actions “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills”.

I’m a whale scientist. In my field, I see some of the most obvious examples of intelligence. One of my favorites is the Humpback Whale bubble net. Humpback Whales sometimes work together creating “bubble nets” to trap schools of fish.  A group of whales swim in an ever-tightening circle blowing bubbles below a school of prey. The shrinking circle of rising bubbles forms a cylinder that encircles the school. The fish believe they are trapped and confine themselves in the ever-smaller cylinder. The whales then suddenly swim upward through the school contained by the ‘net’, mouths agape, swallowing thousands of fish in one gulp.  Humpbacks have been observed doing bubble net feeding alone. But many times, there is a division of labor among the animals. The bubble ring can be created up to 30 meters in diameter through  the cooperation of a dozen animals. Some whales blow the bubbles, some dive deeper to drive fish toward the surface, and others herd prey into the net by vocalizing. These activities require mental skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  Logic and decision making are part of this activity. Again, “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills”. There is an incredible video about this behavior at:

I think we humans have been brainwashed into believing that we are superior beings who are the only creatures on Earth with “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills” — to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. Most certainly our Sunday School teachers were a significant force in arguing that we humans have “dominion”.

But, Western science is equally to blame. Scientists copped out when they relegated animal intelligence to “instinct” – that intellectual black box where we put things that we can’t explain – or don’t dare to explain because it might put some of Earth’s creatures on equal footing with us.

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

3 thoughts on “Beyond Human Intelligence”

  1. There seems to be a lot of interest in this topic now. There is a group on Facebook where people discuss and post links about it. I am especially interested in the spiritual lives of animals.

    1. Hi Nancy:

      Thank you for your comment. I would be very interested in a reference to the Facebook page you are referring to. Like yourself, I wonder about the spiritual life of animals. It seems that the arrogance of the human race prevents most folks from seriously considering both the intelligence and the spirituality of other creatures. I love your web site !!!

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