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Consider the Chickens

Intelligence, ethics, and the inner lives of animals

I owe chickens an apology. Not only have I been eating them until very recently, but I have refused to even consider the possibility of a chicken having any kind of inner life. This estimation was not made from a lack of interaction. As children, my twin brother and I purchased baby chicks from a street vendor. We did this unfazed by the fact that quite often, the chickens would die. Once, when we were nine, we had two that lived, a hen and a rooster. No one told us that we should probably get more hens. Not having any other female companions, the rooster exerted his attentions on the one chicken. She would lay an egg or two every day, much to our delight, but soon sickened and died. Then there was only an incel rooster who roamed our compound and terrorized the women. After a few ugly incidents, he was “given away” to one of the women who worked at our house. We were never told what happened to him, and I didn’t care. There is nothing worse than an incel rooster patrolling your house all day long.

Now, so many years later, I’ve found my way to animal behaviorist Justin Gregg’s brilliant new book If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity. Gregg’s chicken coop is “a huge enclosed area” with high rafters, because as an animal scientist, he knows them to be jungle birds who need perches on which to sleep at night. But it is not only the magisterial heights of Gregg’s discussion of chickens that stayed with me. I was struck also by Gregg’s description of his chickens’ varied personalities, one anxious, another friendly, and so on; he tells us that these chickens do have inner lives and thus a consciousness of themselves as distinct from others. Instead of the feckless creatures I (and most people) assume them to be, chickens have just the sort of intelligence that is necessary for their own survival. They don’t think like humans, Gregg tells us, because they do not need to.

Intelligence, in Gregg’s explanation, does not exist in the way SATs or other IQ tests would have you believe. Those tests quantify a certain kind of ability to process information. People who do not do well on such tests may have other kinds of abilities that simply are not being measured. Intelligence is not one easily definable thing; engineers working on artificial intelligence cannot agree on a definition of it. But what humans have is a tendency to ask why things operate in a certain way. In Gregg’s terminology, humans are “why specialists,” a proclivity that in natural selection terms is no advantage and perhaps even a liability. A narwhal swimming around in the sea, for instance, would never have the kind of mental breakdown that the German philosopher pondering nihilism suffered toward the end of his life. Animal intelligence is practical and does not get caught up in abstract thought. By and large, animals make calculations based on what they can observe; ideas such as “causality,” which lie at the crux of human intelligence, are outside their capacity for thought.

Humans evolved to become why specialists. As Gregg tells it, 200,000 years ago, humans were hanging out with chimpanzees and exhibited no interest in the whys. They could make rudimentary tools and had some kind of assemblage of grunts that allowed for basic communication. He notes that roughly 40,000 years ago, cave paintings were created. Here were humans asking the whys; symbolic representation is an exclusively human thing.

In Gregg’s terminology, humans are “why specialists,” a proclivity that in natural selection terms is no advantage and perhaps even a liability.

Inability to be why specialists does not mean that animals are not capable of “metacognition,” the ability to be conscious of their own thinking or cognition. One of the most stunning examples in this book full of stunning examples is that of Natua, a dolphin at the Dolphin Research Center in Florida. An experiment was set up where Natua was exposed to two kinds of sounds, one a very high tone and one a very low tone. After hearing the sound, Natua had to choose between two paddles, one for the high and another for the low. If he chose correctly, he was given a fish for a reward. If he did not, he was sent for a long time-out, in that the experiment stopped. As the experiment progressed, the high tone sound came very close to the low sound such that they were nearly indistinguishable. At this point, Natua was unable to tell the difference; “he just started randomly pressing paddles,” Gregg writes. His behavior proved that some animals are capable of metacognition, the awareness that they do not know, or that their thinking about something is wrong.

It is no surprise that Gregg is pessimistic about how humans have used their abilities as why specialists, and he thinks that there is a chance that humans might not even survive over another century. The prospect of nuclear war and the climate crisis suggest, in Gregg’s view, that the end is possible. In the meantime, developing a consciousness of animals as beings who are capable of metacognition, of having individual personalities and so on, points to the need for a new ethics. This new set of basic premises would abandon the centering principle that the animal-human relationship must always be of one having dominion over the other.

But if you consider the continued resistance to the idea of animal rights, it is hard to be optimistic about the emergence of a new ethics of mutuality that eschews the dominion portion. Too many human rationalizations, attached to what we eat, what we wear, how we live, are predicated on the belief that we are the only feeling beings and that our actions upon animals are independent of consequences. If you know the fear of a chicken or a cow or a pig about to be slaughtered, you may look at your food in a different way. You might eschew fried chicken or beef or pork completely. If you understand that a horse being whipped is suffering terribly, is extremely scared and dissolute, you can also understand that there is a need for a radical expansion of mindfulness and a concomitant shrinking of power.

In the moral universe informed by Gregg’s argument, the survival of the human race is not an imperative for the planet because humans as a species have been far more disastrous for the world than others. “Prognostic myopia” keeps us horribly and condemnably in the moment, burning fossil fuels and trashing the oceans even though we know that it is terrible for the environment. This is a unique position among philosophers, a lot of whom have lately concerned themselves with questions of ethics and planetary survival. 

As a contrast to Gregg, the Oxford Associate Professor in Philosophy William MacAskill, in his What We Owe the Future, proposes “effective altruism” as a way to live ethically in times of climate crisis. If Gregg argues against human exceptionalism, MacAskill reduces humans to data points, where the survival of the most, and the most benefit to the planet, are guideposts to a present and future ethics. Using Gregg’s arguments, however, effective altruism is rendered meaningless. Even those who live sparingly on twenty-six thousand pounds a year, like MacAskill, are still a burdensome threat, unless we define their worth according to tiresome illusions of human exceptionalism.

If Nietzsche Were A Narwhal is the sort of critical look at human dominion that our world needs. A few years ago, Brown University environmental historian Bathsheba R. Demuth wrote Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, a similarly groundbreaking look at the consequences of the extractive relationship humans have had with the environment. Just as Gregg reveals the risks of humans imagining their power over animals as shorn of consequences, Demuth reveals the consequences of human dominion over nature.

Thinkers and scientists like Gregg and Demuth are presenting readers with the urgent and pressing necessity for a new ethics. The unthinking, extractive, and dominant human treats animals as a lower form of existence, rather than a different form; we assess the environment based on what can be extracted from it. Like our means of communication, our means of travel, of treating disease, and so much else, our ethics need an urgent and pressing update that takes into consideration the understanding of animals. Factory farms, the constant consumption of animal products, and the greedy use of fossil fuels are the seeds of destruction.

I am not sure I could have offered the chicken and rooster of my childhood a deluxe chicken coop with high rafters, but an argument for better living conditions and the introduction of new companions for the rooster would have been easier if we had understood the first thing about the animals around us. I do not need to underscore the rapid pace at which our world is changing. If Nietzsche Were A Narwhal is a must-read because it explains how we can save the world only if we exist in symbiosis with the thinking, feeling creatures that have had the misfortune of sharing the planet with humans, who turn out not to be as intelligent as they believe themselves to be.