Skip to main content

Tom Rachman is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

To understand humanity, consider the frog. Or maybe the lobster. Or is it the narwhal?

As long as people have noticed they’re not alone on the planet, they have compared themselves with the neighbours, those slithering, wing-flapping, hibernating types: the beasts. I think of this in phases.

Phase One (early humans, peeping from caves): Can we kill them before they kill us?

Phase Two (before science): Clearly, we are the best – or why would God have made them so delicious?

Phase Three (after Darwin): Turns out we are animals too. But the best animals! We alone use tools, communicate, have feelings.

Phase Four (contemporary): Bad news: animals use tools, communicate and feel too. Should we take them out of our mouths now? And can we finally figure ourselves out by studying them?

This last phase is prone to confirmation bias, tempting us to cite creatures that embody our view of humanity. So the likes of Jordan Peterson proclaim that lobsters are proof – men need to stop slouching! (Perhaps they also need garlic butter.)

But a new phase of animal/human comparison is emerging, a self-doubting review that dares say it: Beasts are better.

“The Earth is bursting with animal species that have hit on solutions for how to live a good life in ways that put the human species to shame,” the animal-cognition researcher Justin Gregg writes in his recent book, If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity.

“What good,” he asks, “is human intelligence?”

Lately, our flaws seem obvious. Artificial intelligence threatens to surpass our once-unrivalled brains. Democracy – all about trusting human judgment – keeps elevating thugs and dimwits. Online culture dredges up traits so repellent we’d rather they belonged to another species. Meantime, we hurtle toward the destruction of our home planet, seemingly incapable of stopping ourselves.

Blame lies in curiosity, according to Mr. Gregg, an adjunct professor at St. Francis Xavier University, in Antigonish, N.S. People are unsatisfied merely to notice that an apple is tasty once ripe, or that we breathe harder after running. We must know why.

“While it has produced inarguable benefits – like pasteurized milk – it’s also the most likely cause of our impending extinction,” he says.

If the “why” compulsion creates wonders – machines that fly to space, say – we must also blame this ingenuity for the devastation wrought by invention. Consider the combustion engine.

Besides our tendency to “why,” there is our tendency to lie. While beasts use trickery too, outright lying requires complex language. Oddly, we are both prone to lie, and prone to believe lies, leading to absurdities (Vaccines are a globalist plot!) that warp society.

Human awareness of death is also costly, prompting us to pursue immortality through grand achievements and domination. This, Mr. Gregg contends, produces countless woes, from holy wars to genocide to colonialism.

Even human morality isn’t good, he says. If a low-status macaque challenges an alpha male, the lesser primate gets slapped, and waggles his backside submissively. Such norms maintain social balance.

By contrast, the complexity of human morality can lead to appalling results. Mr. Gregg cites the twisted claims of “morality” behind residential schools that did such harm to generations of Indigenous communities. The repression of homosexuality is another purportedly moral cause that has ruined many lives.

“Moral thinking results in truly bonkers behaviour (from an evolutionary perspective) and might in fact make us less moral than other species,” he writes.

Indisputably, our brains have engineered atrocities. Nevertheless, to gaze longingly into bovine eyes feels wishful.

Perhaps being a wildebeest is a form of mindfulness, just living in the now. Yet animals also suffer terribly for their simplicity, afflicted by vicious diseases without remedy, bullied and brutalized with no escape. Many struggle just to avoid starvation and predators – yet are still likely to end their days devoured alive.

Would a wildebeest rather be a human? It’s impossible to know. But would you rather live as a bee?

A humbling of humanity is overdue. Yet the anti-human argument tends to cherry pick, citing the horror – but hurrying past the admirable. What about our creation of antibiotics, alleviating so much distress? What about music and recipes and awe-inspiring explanations of the stars? We also have the means to learn of a faraway earthquake, and send help. This too is uniquely human.

The anti-human argument is a needful retort to our species’ arrogance. However, humans alone have a chance of improving humans. Do I find that hopeful or depressing? It depends on the day.

But rather than condemning intellect because of its worst results, we must apply our flawed grey matter to fixing the messes we keep making. Narwhals aren’t coming to the rescue.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe