History is written by the victors. This applies to what we humans do to each other as well as to our treatment of other species. As humans, we see ourselves as the measure of all things. However, I think the world is more beautiful if we broaden our mind. In an interview with NRC, Frans de Waal says that we should stop comparing animals to ourselves: “Am I smarter than an octopus because I can talk? I don’t think that is an interesting question. The octopus can do a lot of things that I cannot do.” According to him, it is more interesting to investigate the cognition of different animals as valuable in itself.
And why should we limit this to animals? See for example this entertaining TED Talk by Stefan Mancuso in which he speaks up for the plants. Plants have amazing characteristics, which might well fall under the term ‘cognition’. They can measure at least 15 different things, like the presence of minerals, soil structure, competition from neighbors, or wind. The very fact that we are human limits us in the study of plants. We can move around freely and therefore assume that an organism that stays in one place has less abilities. But plants can stay alive even when they are largely eaten.
Whether we call it ‘cognition’ or not, every living being has qualities that we can admire. Our life is made possible by microscopic bacteria that can survive in extreme conditions. As Bill Bryson puts it: “Bacteria may not build cities or have interesting social lives, but they will be here when the Sun explodes. This is their planet, and we are on it only because they allow us to be.”
Both a linear conception of evolution and the idea of man as ‘master of creation’ can lead to the idea that everything here on earth is subservient to us. Looking at the world through the eyes of other life forms (with or without eyes), makes us less arrogant. Earlier I wrote about how Jesus teaches us that we are called to serve other creatures. Science is also showing us that we are not the ultimate aim of the evolution of life. We are discovering more and more about other hominids that lived simultaneously with homo sapiens. These discoveries unsettle the familiar picture of an ape who slowly starts walking upright and becomes a human being. Our history has little linearity.
As humans we have a special place in nature, but there is no reason to look down on other life forms or treat them carelessly. A thousand year old tree, a beautifully camouflaged chameleon, the sensitivity of a horse — it evokes respect. If we take a different view, I hope our choices can reflect the interests of others alongside our own.
- Stefano Mancuso: The roots of plant intelligence (TED Talk)
- Garzón en Keijzer, Cognition in Plants
- Bill Bryson, 2004. A Short History of Nearly Everything