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15 June 2022

Every day the natural world reveals its intelligence, but humans choose to ignore it

From the emergent order of swarming bees to how gorillas manage grief, species are constantly responding to their environments.

By John Burnside

As a child, I was taught to believe that, unlike humans, animals were not intelligent in the usual sense. Instead they “obeyed” instinct, each blindly following a limited, hardwired behavioural rule set, according to its specific character and needs. It was all mechanical, there was no thought, no freedom of choice, no judgement.

Since then, happily, our thinking about the natural world has become more sophisticated. We have begun to see that the other animals are more actively intelligent than we thought – as evidenced by a recent paper (published in Current Biology) by researchers from Exeter University, who concluded that roosting jackdaws deliberate together for a considerable time about when to take to the air en masse, the entire flock actively debating through their calls.

“It’s really quite a spectacular thing,” one Exeter team member notes. “You have this sudden build-up of intensity of the calls. And then from one moment to the next, the sky just fills with black birds.” The conclusion seems to be that, during these communal deliberations, the jackdaws vote on their best course of action.

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That such collective decision-making betokens intelligence is hard to deny, but jackdaws are not unique. Throughout the biosphere an integral intelligence is evident, from the emergent order of swarming bees to the ways that gorillas manage grief. Why humans so often choose to overlook this intelligence is mysterious. Perhaps it has something to do with the monotheistic roots of our culture; perhaps it is simply the arrogance of an industrial imperium for which everything – from a bird, to a forest, to an ocean – is merely raw material. But what we are missing is crucial. Intelligence literally inheres in nature – though to say so is not to insist on some simplistic argument-by-design. If we pay attention to how it works, we see that natural intelligence is emergent: spontaneous, expressive, often surprising. And it really is everywhere.

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The error of industrial cultures, however, is to mistake a specific and limited cleverness, as evinced by certain types of human entrepreneurship, for intelligence. But these two conditions are like chalk and cheese. Cleverness knows what it ought to know and shows itself accordingly. Intelligence, on the other hand, is an open-ended process of enquiry and revelation, of making connections, of constant, purposeful invention.

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Take the Arctic Poppy. This delicate little plant is a denizen of the exposed, stony spaces of the far north. That close to the pole, the growing season is short, which means that the Arctic Poppy must get itself pollinated, set seed and ripen in an inordinately short span before the season turns. To achieve this, it has evolved a complex, carefully engineered flower stem, one that allows the bloom to turn constantly, hungrily following the midnight sun around the sky, missing not one jot of its light and warmth. Other flower stems cannot do this – but then, they do not need to. As a response to its environment, this one poppy has developed an extraordinary piece of green engineering, resulting in a structure much admired for its strength and flexibility by human artificers.

It could be argued that such a wonder has come about through evolution – which it undoubtedly has – but that only raises the question of what we mean by the term. Surely it is as dogmatic to insist that evolution is all chance as it is to insist upon an external creator. Why not consider the idea that everything in nature is consequent upon an inherent intelligence that, though it is mysterious to us, need not be supernatural, on the one hand, or purely random on the other?

Every day, the jackdaws, the poppies and everything else that lives alongside us reveals that, as a species, we are not just coming up with the wrong answers, but that we are asking the wrong questions about what we mean by intelligent life.

[See also: Why North America’s warblers must be protected]

This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down