Humans, at least in Western culture, have this thing. They have to feel superior. Doesn’t matter in what way. Intelligence, ethnicity, physical appearance, physical ability, culture, choice of deity or style of worship, geographical location, sports team, stuff/no stuff, you name it. Whatever it is, we gotta be Number One.
Some of it is fear or insecurity. Shouting as loudly as possible to cover an underlying conviction that we might not be the best/the brightest/the most greatest/the fanciest/the whatever-est. But some seems to be built in.
But then there’s the part of us that stops and looks and sometimes, however reluctantly, examines the assumption. With animals, for example, overcoming centuries of “Man is the pinnacle of creation, and animals exist to serve him” (note gender there–another assumption).
Science has been taking a closer look at animal intelligence in recent years, and questioning the belief that humans are exceptional for everything from intelligence to tool use. It’s not a question that we are the champions when it comes to dominating the environment (and, as is becoming all too evident, destroying it), but we aren’t as unique as we thought. We’re starting to realize that intelligence is a spectrum, and some species that we told ourselves were just kind of not there are actually quite, quite bright.
Octopuses, for example. Elephants. Even some that we’ve long dismissed as fundamentally stupid. Such as cats. And pigs–pigs are really smart. And, yes, horses.
That’s a major shift in the paradigm, to start thinking that humans aren’t the only thing on the planet that can think and feel, that’s aware of itself, that can solve problems and maybe even think ahead as well as back. What’s more, some animals may even have what can be defined as language. Prairie dogs, for example. Marine mammals. Some species of birds. And if we stop defining language as human language, i.e., auditory, oral, spoken words, we can really expand the horizons.
Once we allow a thing to exist, or to have the possibility of existing, we change how we approach the world. We investigate things (concepts, ideas, species) that we didn’t previously consider to be worthy of investigating. We give it value, because we are still, fundamentally, Superior Beings, and our notice is a form of validation.
At the same time, we also acknowledge that we might not be as uniquely wonderful as we’ve been telling ourselves we are. We leave room for others to be wonderful, too. Whatever Other we’re considering at the time.
I can see how the blowback happens. The trainers and riders insisting horses cannot be that intelligent. The general public, even the scientists, resisting the concept of animal intelligence. The politics of exceptionalism, and all the invidious isms of fear and hate and exclusion. Because opening up to the idea that we (for whatever definition of that word we’re looking at) are not so totally exceptional after all can be a terribly difficult and scary process.
It’s also essential if we’re going to move on–as trainers/riders, as individuals, as citizens. We have to see outside our own paradigms, and understand that our one way of being or doing or believing is not the only way.
Besides, if or when we finally, unambiguously encounter nonterrestrial intelligence, we’ll have to be able to think outside the human box. Probably very far outside it. We’d better be ready.