Natural versus Human Intelligence

The general human belief is that only we exalted human beings possess the rarified trait called intelligence, or that it is exhibited, to a much lesser degree, by a few other species of “higher” organisms such as mammals and birds. But most people would strictly limit the possession of intelligence by denying that it is possessed by other organisms, including fish, insects, amphibians, microbes, reptiles, and plants. And yet, social insects like ants, bees, termites, and wasps exhibit complex social behaviours and are able to do things that, if they were done by humans, would be considered as indubitable examples of intelligent behaviour. For example, bees are able to locate food sources and communicate this information to their fellow bees by performing a dance, which indicates the size of the food source, its distance from the colony, and its direction in relation to the Sun, while taking into consideration the Sun’s regular movement across the sky. Termites build large mounds to house their colony’s many thousands of members, which mounds contain many interconnecting passageways that also serve the important function of keeping the interior at a relatively constant temperature, regardless of the temperature outside the mound. In addition, some termite species cultivate fungi as food, as do leaf-cutter ants, which excavate elaborate miniature caverns where they raise this food crop, and to nourish which they assiduously cut and collect leaves. There are other kinds of ants that cultivate and protect aphids, much as humans raise farm animals, because the aphids excrete a sweet droplet of nectar that the ants like to drink.

There are now over one billion vehicles on the road worldwide, and this number is projected to double within the next twenty years. How on earth will our road systems cope? The average speed of cars in some cities is already less than four miles per hour. Congestion researcher Dirk Helbing and his colleagues at Dresden University of Technology have been taking lessons from an ant colony. They created numerous possible roadways between the nest and a source of sugar. Very quickly, the ants worked out the shortest routes. The whole nest was soon scurrying back and forth collecting food and bringing it home. If this experiment were on humans instead of ants you would expect major congestion, collisions, and road rage. Not so with the ants. No traffic jams formed. When roadways were at risk of gridlock, some ants diverted traffic away to other routes. This intelligent network is providing researchers clues to better regulating vehicle traffic.[1]

We judge and rank other organisms according to their ability to imitate or approach our very specific human intelligence. But clearly this is a highly biased, and not at all objective, standard of intelligence. The naive human belief that only we humans possess intelligence arises from two causes: first, the great majority of us spend far too much time observing other human beings, while we spend little or no time observing other organisms, which pernicious habit leads us to overestimate our capabilities and intelligence, while we greatly underestimate the capabilities and intelligence of other creatures; and second, we perceive our own actions from the inside, that is, through our brain, while we perceive the actions of other organisms from the outside, that is, as external observers, without being able to experience their actions and lives as the observed organisms experience them.

The following excerpt relates an incident that occurred on One Tree Island, a small coral cay measuring only eight hectares in area. It is located off the northeast coast of Australia and forms part of the Great Barrier Reef:

Just beyond the edge of the platform, Graham pointed out a bridled tern that was pecking at a black noddy chick. Soon, the chick was dead. “She won’t eat him,” he predicted, and he was right. The bridled tern walked away from the chick, who shortly thereafter was consumed by a gull. Graham was philosophical about the episode, versions of which he had obviously seen many times; it would keep the island’s bird population from outstripping its resources.[2]

As was mentioned by the author, the researcher had previously observed this behaviour being performed by other adult birds on the tiny island where there exists a human research station. What this means is that the birds understood, in the absence of any natural predators, the great importance of keeping their total population in check so that it doesn’t exceed the natural capacity of the island and its surrounding waters to feed them. This is something that we humans have yet to understand, despite our assumed superior intelligence.

We have difficulty recognizing, understanding, or crediting many forms of non-human intelligence because it is not verbal, logical, or mathematical. And yet, these kinds of examples can be found wherever there is life. Some examples are eels that migrate across entire oceans in order to procreate, mature salmon that, after spending many years in the ocean, find the same stream or river where they were hatched, birds that migrate year after year towards the equator and then back towards the northern or southern latitudes where they spend the warmer and nutritionally abundant summer months, and ants and bees that work harmoniously with each other for the sake of the survival of the colony to which they belong. There are some ant species that prevent plants other than the ones in which they live from taking root in the surrounding soil, by regularly cutting the shoots of any other plants that happen to germinate.

The same belittling, denigrating, or indifferent attitude towards other living creatures that is common today is similar to the European explorers’ supercilious attitudes towards the cultures of the less technologically advanced peoples whom they encountered in the foreign lands that they visited on their voyages of exploration and, later, conquest, exploitation, and expropriation. Because, in their eyes, these “primitive” peoples wore fewer clothes, worshipped Nature or strange gods, performed superstitious rituals to placate spirits or for other reasons, and lived, according to their judgment, less “civilized” lives, they overlooked and did not value their many accomplishments, as well as the integrity and adaptive intelligence of their culture to their particular environment.

If we deny intelligence to other creatures, whose behaviours we try to reduce to mere chemical, neural, or biophysical processes, or to the inevitable effects of their genes, then, by the same reasoning, we cannot claim intelligence for any of our actions, since every single one of them can likewise be reduced to a chemical, neural, biophysical, imitative, or genetic process or cause. If an alien species were to study us in the same way that we study our fellow terrestrial inhabitants, then they would conclude that all our actions are the result of the continual interactions of certain chemical substances in our brains, which trigger the activation of certain neural connections, which in turn cause us to perform certain behaviours. And where exactly would intelligence come into the picture? For these hypothetical alien creatures would view us as deterministic creatures in the same way that we regard all the other living organisms on the Earth.

This shows that intelligence is not an objective but rather an internal and subjective judgment about the nature of an organism’s actions or behaviours. We claim intelligence for some of our actions because we do not like to admit that we are imitating, conforming, and scorning automatons who have no control over our behaviours. But neurologists have increasingly narrowed the range of what we call volitional or deliberate actions – those actions that, we believe, we could have not done if we had chosen to do otherwise. But it is more and more difficult to draw a clear line between these two kinds of previously distinct categories of behaviours, namely, those that we call voluntary and those that we call involuntary.

To deny intelligence to natural systems and non-human behaviours is merely another example of human arrogance – the belief that if we cannot understand it and fit it into our very narrow human terms, conceptions, judgments, standards, and theories, then it cannot be considered to be intelligent. For those who are able and have the patience to see it, the evidence is everywhere that Nature is far more intelligent that we ignorant human beings think it is, and, moreover, than we believe ourselves to be.

We humans are fond of vaunting our presumed superior intelligence and superiority over all other living organisms, and yet, if we consider the matter objectively, that is, from a non-human perspective, what we will find is that the cumulative result of all this human cleverness and intelligence, as manifested in our many inventions and scientific discoveries, is a very grave degradation of the planet and its many different living and non-living systems, to the point that our own survival is increasingly imperilled by our collective actions. In what sense can this be called intelligent, if we cannot recognize the immense folly of what we are doing and change our ways before it is too late?

If other animals could pronounce judgment on our actions, then they would probably declare us to be clever but in reality very stupid creatures that don’t understand even basic natural rules like the Law of Balance – the great importance of limiting our numbers and our total consumption in order to exist harmoniously with the environment on which we depend for our survival, not producing so much garbage and poisoning the environment, not digging up elements, minerals, and other substances that have been buried below the Earth’s surface precisely because they are harmful to life, not killing other living organisms that we have no intention of eating, not changing the Earth’s physical and chemical properties as rapidly as we are doing, and not seeking to evade death, which is the fate of all mortal creatures, including human beings. All of these common human actions are evidence, not of our superior intelligence, as we mistakenly believe, but of our colossal and depraved collective stupidity, which seeks to deny and escape our mortal, earthly nature, where we are born, live our lives, and hence belong, in order, ever hopefully and earnestly, to join the divine realm of immaterial beings, where we most certainly do not – and never will – belong.

What is the value of possessing this thing that we declare to be our unparalleled human intelligence if it will only lead us to our destruction? In other words, if we are not intelligent enough to understand that what we are doing to the Earth and to its many other, non-human inhabitants is nothing more than an instance of extraordinary madness that has no parallel in the Earth’s very long history? For, in verity, this diabolical intelligence has made us the most destructive species ever to inhabit this fertile planet.

Except for those who are anthropocentrically prejudiced or blinded, as so many humans are, it is obvious that other creatures possess a form of natural intelligence, which is very different from our rational or scientific intelligence. To deny that these kinds of non-human intelligence exist is to deny the existence of things that we do not understand. This is simply another example of human arrogance, which assumes that we are the only, or at least the most, intelligent creatures on the Earth, when this is very far from being true.

The existence of natural intelligence was recognized by many of those whom we modern degenerates call primitive peoples, who honoured these animals in their art, mythology, and worship. These primitive peoples understood Nature far better than we modern humans, blinded by our scientific knowledge and our conceit in our own superiority, can ever hope to do. And this is most clearly revealed by their profound respect for Nature, a respect that often merged into worship. Theirs was a truer worship than the present-day narcissistic worship of ourselves, or the sacred texts of modern religions, some of which contain profoundly mistaken beliefs, such as the belief that the whole of God’s Glorious Creation was put on Earth solely for our selfish use, to do with as we please.

Why have we lost – why have we become so deaf, dumb, and blind to – the natural knowledge and intelligence that all our ancestors formerly possessed? It is primarily because of science, that bewitching, deceiving, and lying form of sorcery that, like the beguiling snake that is said to have tempted Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree of knowledge, has led us to ignore and even scorn the natural knowledge, and with it, our intimate connection to and ability to commune with Nature, that all people formerly possessed. It is science, along with its unnatural handmaiden technology, that have completely alienated us from Nature and, in doing so, have alienated us from the source of all Life on Earth.

We have become bewitched and possessed by the sorcery of science and technology, preferring the worse for the better, such as the artificial foods that many of us consume regularly that make us unhealthy and sick, while we are oblivious to the destruction we are causing to the Earth. For no one possessed of the natural knowledge that results from a regular and respectful communion with Nature would violate, poison, and destroy Nature in the heedless, reckless, and widespread manner that we are doing. The diabolical nature of scientific knowledge is shown by the fact that it is science that has given our species the ability to destroy a great many of the life forms that presently exist on the Earth. Even without nuclear weapons, it is science, medicine, and technology that are responsible for the mass extinctions that are taking place all over the world at an ever-increasing rate, by enabling us dangerously and recklessly to increase our numbers and our consumption of many different things – energy, trees, fish, animals, land, water, metals, plants, poisons, chemicals, plastics, weapons, cars, airplanes, and so on – practically without limit.

Masanobu Fukuoka’s total rejection of science was the beginning of his long personal quest to rediscover the natural knowledge and respect for Nature that our ancestors possessed, a knowledge that is not opposed to Nature, as science so often is, but exists in harmony with it, precisely because this knowledge springs from a profound reverence for Nature as the generous and bountiful source of all Life on Earth.

If the human race is to exist for any length of time on the Earth, then it is absolutely essential that we rediscover the natural knowledge and the respect for Nature which our ancestors possessed, but which we degenerate moderns, besotted as we are by our scientific and technological accomplishments, have lost. We have very foolishly believed the conceited declarations about our vaunted superiority, to the great detriment of the innumerable other life forms that exist on the Earth, the only home that we have in the vast, indifferent, and inhospitable Universe.

[1] The Shark’s Paintbrush: Biomimicry and How Nature is Inspiring Innovation by Jay Harman, pp. 151-152. White Cloud Press, Ashland, Oregon, 2013.

[2] The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, chapter 7. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2014.


  1. What you forgot was to define intelligence; The ability to produce movements or signals that overcome natural constraints or circumstances in order to achieve a desired outcome.
    So according to this definition, 1.plants can use their own growth to gain access to sunlight, or to reach water and nutrients in the soil. They can also produce flowers and nectars and fruits to attract pollinators or to transport their seeds. They can emit chemical signals that invite the assistance of appropriate plants,insects, animals and birds to serve their needs and can therefore communicate.
    You should watch this video called, What Plants Talk About.
    Plants are much smarter than many people I know! 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are right to point out my failure to define intelligence, which is due to a personal quirk of mine, namely that I am no admirer of Socrates and Plato, those two ancient, inveterate definers of words. I have read many works where the authors define certain words precisely, but it frequently happens that others disagree with their definitions. In my opinion, it is often better to give examples of the word or concept one is discussing, since this is the way that people usually learn the meanings of words. Disagreements about the meanings, definitions, or boundaries of words arise because it can happen that people have observed different examples of word usage, which can lead to their using a given word in different ways and contexts. Of course, human communication is dependent on the shared understanding of the meanings of words.


Comments are closed.