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If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal What Animal Intelligence Reveals about Human Stupidity

Popular Science New
By: Justin Gregg(Author)
309 pages, no illustrations
If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal combines a critique of human exceptionalism with a gentle introduction to animal intelligence.
If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal
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  • If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal ISBN: 9781399712477 Paperback Jan 2024 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal ISBN: 9781399712460 Hardback Jan 2023 In stock
Selected version: £21.99
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About this book

What if human intelligence is actually more of a liability than a gift? After all, the animal kingdom, in all its diversity, gets by just fine without it. At first glance, human history is full of remarkable feats of intelligence, yet human exceptionalism can be a double-edged sword. With our unique cognitive prowess comes severe consequences, including existential angst, violence, discrimination, and the creation of a world teetering towards climate catastrophe. What if human exceptionalism is more of a curse than a blessing?

As Justin Gregg puts it, there's an evolutionary reason why human intelligence isn't more prevalent in the animal kingdom. Simply put, non-human animals don't need it to be successful. And, miraculously, their success arrives without the added baggage of destroying themselves and the planet in the process.

In seven mind-bending and hilarious chapters, Gregg highlights features seemingly unique to humans – our use of language, our rationality, our moral systems, our so-called sophisticated consciousness – and compares them to our animal brethren. What emerges is both demystifying and remarkable, and will change how you look at animals, humans, and the meaning of life itself.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Amusing and irreverent
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 13 Jun 2023 Written for Hardback

    There is no denying that humans are smart creatures, and a vast gap seems to yawn between us and even our closest primate relatives. Why? The reason that we do not see more of it, Gregg argues, is that human-level intelligence is surplus to requirements: other animals can get by just fine with less. The conclusion to his introduction sets the tone for the book and reeled me in: "What if we acknowledge that sometimes our so-called human achievements are actually rather shitty solutions, evolutionarily speaking? Doing that turns the whole world upside down. [...] The animal kingdom suddenly explodes with beautiful, simple minds that have found elegant solutions to the problem of survival" (p. 16). From that perspective, we are not the pinnacle of evolution but an aberration, an unnecessarily brainy ape. To buttress this provocative idea, Gregg compares several cognitive traits in humans and other animals: the ability to ask "why" (causal inference); language and the deceptions it allows; awareness of mortality; norms and morals; consciousness; and an exceptionally dangerous form of human cognitive dissonance he dubs prognostic myopia. I will look at some of these in more detail below.

    Gregg calls humans the Why Specialists. Whereas other animals learn by association, humans can additionally learn through inference. For him, this demarcates a boundary and it is at the root of all our achievements. But is it useful? After all, "animals can make fantastically useful decisions without the need for asking why things happen" (p. 49). Causal reasoning has sent us down some dark and dangerous paths in the past, and though the scientific method can ferret out real phenomena, this takes time.

    Really interesting, I thought, was Gregg's next argument. Our advanced cognitive traits have also resulted in some unintended byproducts. He applies this in particular to mortality and morality. Though the idea that animals can grieve is popular, even a proponent like Barbara J. King cautions that "we alone fully anticipate the inevitability of death" (p. 96). Quoting philosopher Susana Monsó, Gregg adds that "grief does not necessarily signal a [concept of death] – what it signals is a strong emotional attachment to the dead individual" (p. 95). Gregg is convinced that death means something to other animals, a topic studied by the recent field of comparative thanatology, though it does not seem that they understand their own mortality. Humans do, but does this do us any good? From an evolutionary standpoint, this is largely irrelevant. Understanding death "relies on cognitive skills that are [otherwise] hugely beneficial to the human ability to understand how the world works (e.g., mental time travel, episodic foresight, explicit knowledge of time)" (p. 114). In short, it is a bug, not a feature. He applies the same reasoning to human morality. Primatologist Frans de Waal has argued that human morality is "a natural outcropping (shaped by evolution) of behavior and cognition that is common to all social animals" (p. 125). They live by codes of conduct known as norms, and Gregg argues that the human moral sense has been moulded "from the clay of animal normativity" (p. 127). However, our morality does not prevent us from justifying to ourselves atrocities such as homophobia, racism, and even genocide. So what good are morals? He considers them another byproduct of e.g. language, theory of mind, and our why specialism. Unfortunately, "you can't unlink these things. You cannot have that laundry list of positive cognitive skills without the negative consequences" (p. 154).

    The final example, explored in the last two chapters, is what Gregg calls prognostic myopia: our shortsighted farsightedness. In a nutshell, this brand of cognitive dissonance is "the human capacity to think about and alter the future coupled with an inability to actually care all that much about what happens in the future" (p. 195). Our brains evolved to deal with immediate problems, and we employ technology to solve them, but we are simply not wired to care about the long-term, unforeseen consequences these solutions generate. Gregg considers it the most dangerous flaw in our thinking, and climate change the prime example of existential threats it can lead to.

    Now, provocative and fascinating as these and other ideas are, I do feel that Gregg generalizes and oversimplifies in places. Returning to the above examples. Why did it take so long for us to evolve into why specialists? Because sometimes it leads to ludicrous solutions, Gregg answers. That is an amusing observation but does not answer the question. Regarding death awareness, he rather dramatically portrays it as a singular moment in time where a human child developed it, surrounded by adults who could not understand her experience, which seems rather far-fetched. Ants, meanwhile, are easily misled: spray a live ant with the pheromones of a dead ant (so-called necromones), and its nestmates will summarily carry the protesting ant out of the nest. But does that mean, as Gregg concludes, that ants have little understanding of death? Or rather, as Ed Yong has written elsewhere, that we fail to understand animals on their terms? In a world dominated by smell, they seem to understand death perfectly well. Even though Gregg references Nagel's famous paper later on, here he seems to forget to ask what it is like to be an ant. Similarly, I consider prognostic myopia a very powerful concept, but to pin our inaction in the face of climate change on this one cognitive flaw alone oversimplifies things. Judging by some other books on this topic, things are a little bit more complicated than that.

    In my review of his previous book, I warned readers to buckle up for some serious terminology. This book is an improvement and I was impressed with his accessible explanations of complex concepts such as theory of mind or metacognition. I particularly liked his ingenious metaphor of improv theatre to explain consciousness. Imagine your mind as a theatre, the spotlight as your subjective experience (i.e. consciousness), and the various players on stage as things you can be conscious of. Crucially, the difference between humans and other animals is that we have many more "cognitive processes that [can] step into the spotlight of consciousness and generate qualia for us. We're not more conscious, we're just conscious of more things" (p. 177).

    In conclusion, If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is irreverent and frequently funny. Even if I am critical of some finer points, Gregg had little trouble convincing me that humans should not be too impressed with themselves and that animals show that such cognitive chops are surplus to requirement. Here, too, it seems that being good enough suffices.
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Justin Gregg is a Senior Research Associate with the Dolphin Communication Project and an Adjunct Professor at St. Francis Xavier University where he lectures on animal behaviour and cognition. Originally from Vermont, Justin studied the echolocation abilities of wild dolphins in Japan and The Bahamas. He currently lives in rural Nova Scotia where he writes about science and contemplates the inner lives of the crows that live near his home.

Popular Science New
By: Justin Gregg(Author)
309 pages, no illustrations
If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal combines a critique of human exceptionalism with a gentle introduction to animal intelligence.
Media reviews

"If Nietzsche Were A Narwhal makes some extraordinary and thought-provoking points. It is not only engagingly written, but its controversial thesis is worth taking seriously [...] some of the cognitive concepts introduced [...] are nothing less than brilliant."
Wall Street Journal

"Beautiful, thought-provoking, and often hilarious"
BBC Science Focus

"Gregg shows how increased cognitive skills do not necessarily equate to success [...] This insightful book provides food for thought and lends credence to that notion [...] A fascinating take on human intelligence."
Kirkus Book Reviews

"Entertaining work of pop science [...] [If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal] is a lighthearted conceit, and it leads to an enlightening tour of animal behavior [...] wonderfully accessible and charmingly narrated, this is a fascinating investigation of intellect and cognition."
Publishers Weekly

"Enlightening! If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is a hilarious and thrilling look at intelligence that asks: are humans really the best? Gregg will dazzle and sweep you off your feet with his detailed exploration of the animal kingdom and its many secrets. This is an absolute must-read."
– Wednesday Martin, bestselling author of Untrue and Primates of Park Avenue

"If Nietzsche were a Narwhal is a beautiful, thought-provoking and often hilarious exploration of this planet's different kinds of minds. Justin Gregg points out that while many of the hallmarks of human intelligence are also found, in some form, in animals from insects to narwhals, humans are by all means exceptional. But our intelligence is still constrained by our evolutionary history; we may be too intelligent for own good, and too stupid to look after our planet with a sufficiently long-term planning perspective. Gregg's magnificent book is a poignant reminder that if we don't raise our game fast, we might once again cede Earth to the rule of insects and other supposedly less intelligent creatures."
– Lars Chittka, author of The Mind of a Bee

"If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is an unusual, delightful, and entertaining book that will help us achieve a more precise understanding of human nature, counterintuitively by looking at our reflection in light of the clues of conscious behavior expressed by our fellow animals. I loved Dr. Gregg's book because I learned quite a few interesting things from each chapter. As a scholar, I can offer no higher praise. Highly recommended."
– Oné R. Pagán, author of Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins: A Trip Through the World of Animal Intoxication

"A highly original take on the nature of intelligence across life forms. Simultaneously thought-provoking and delightfully humorous, Justin Gregg guides readers into an essential re-thinking of human exceptionalism. This is a welcome upending of all we have been molded to believe about human and other-than-human animal minds."
– Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of Rooted and Mozart's Starling

"If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is a book full of observations as surprising and off-the-beaten-path as its title. It's scientifically very well informed. But it's not a treatise – it's a pleasure."
– Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words and Becoming Wild

"Combining first-rate story-telling with the latest research on animal minds and cognitive psychology, If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is the rare book that will cause readers to think deeply about big questions and moral issues and to laugh out loud on nearly every page. I loved it."
– Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat

"If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is a funny, perceptive book that answers questions we've been told not to ask. Like many of the great sages, Justin Gregg uses animal stories to treat deep questions of consciousness and justice. The result is a deft field guide to the mixed blessings of intelligence and the real possibility that consciousness (and joy) exist perfectly well without it."
– William Poundstone, author of How Do You Fight a Horse-Sized Duck?

"A dazzling, delightful read on what animal cognition can teach us about our own mental shortcomings. You won't just tear through this book in one sitting – you'll probably want to invite Justin Gregg over for dinner to spend more time inside his brilliant mind. This is one of the best debuts I've read in a long time, and I dare you to open it without rethinking some of your basic ideas about intelligence."
– Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again

"A sparkling and witty tour of the many minds we share this planet with. Nietzsche might be surprised to find himself contemplated in the company of beasts from narwhals to slugs – but the fascinating and detailed payoff of the cognitive lives of so many animals is immense."
– Clive Wynne, author of Dog Is Love

"I defy you not to be interested by this book – it finds a novel way of getting at very deep questions about who we are and what it means, and does so with clear-eyed compassion and a certain humor that softens the conclusion a bit."
– Bill McKibben, bestselling author of The End of Nature and Falter

"This is an important book to read if you want to understand animals for what they are – not as cardboard cutouts, or as furry humans. Animal minds aren't in competition with us, although Gregg makes a good case that if they were, they would win hands down. The idea that human intelligence may be nothing more than a failed evolutionary dead end, gives humanity an important challenge to which we must rise."
– Arik Kershenbaum, author of The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy

"I felt dumber after reading this book. Mission accomplished, Justin!"
– David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine

"We've heard that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, but have you ever considered that having a human mind is more a bane than a gift? Justin Gregg's delightful and provocative book melds science with anecdote to explore that question. Read it, have your preconceptions challenged, and feel some humility. It might do you good."
– Jonathan Balcombe, author of Super Fly and What a Fish Knows

"What's it like to be a bat, a bee, or a bed bug? In this enthralling book, Justin Gregg offers a window into the minds of other creatures, and debunks many of the myths of human exceptionalism. He makes the provocative argument that human thinking may be complex, but it is by no means superior – and its unique qualities could even be the cause of our species' ultimate downfall. If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is both a humbling and awe-inspiring read"
– David Robson, author of The Intelligence Trap and The Expectation Effect

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