Animals Ecopsychology Environment Hawaii

Animals, Language & Intelligence

Are we the smartest creatures on the block? Or do we just not speak the mother tongue? Recently a friend of mine commented that pigs are pretty smart, about as smart as a 5-year-old human. Bless ’em for inspiring this post.

I’ve always been fascinated by animal communication. Since childhood growing up with an African Grey Parrot named Calvin, I was always told he was as smart as a 3-year-old (but was really a middle-aged creature). He would often bite and make strange noises, mimic the television and mumble like family members in the other room. Once as a toddler –I’m told– I called from the bathtub to get out and Calvin answered in the voices of my mother and grandmother, who heard him and mistook it as genuine, so for awhile no one came.

When he bit one member of the family he said to her shortly after, “owch, that hurt”, and would often repeat the sounds of dogs barking indoors, in the distance, and the voice of my grandmother yelling “no bark! no bark!”


Calvin was an a-hole. And I knew three year-olds generally where not– at least not at this devilish capacity. There was something about this experience that shaped me forever. Even though grandmother always said he was “smart as a three-year-old” proudly like it was a compliment, I often would look into his strange, expressive eyes and wonder what the hell was going on in there. Often he looked like he loved us, like we should fear him (we did) and like he was possibly very bored.




That kind of complexity felt to me like something beyond what human children generally display. It was abstract, and complex thinking. Could there be more to this story?

In our education system we all learn about evolutionary theory and survival of the fittest, often through a lens that framed human beings as the apex of all life and intelligence on earth. In a lot of ways, I can’t help but wonder if this hierarchical mode of thinking may be flawed, and potentially even a little self-congratulatory. (Especially considering each species has had the same amount of evolutionary time to come to where they are.)




In a similar vein, the organization  Kai Palaoa considers oceanic species as highly complex and perhaps more advanced/conscious than we are as human beings, and is rooted in the Hawaiian understanding of the “family” of all life and living ancestry. According this culture– and many others– we are simply cousins of the same kingdom, there is no scale with which to accurately measure intelligence.

IQ tests, and linguistic tests, all tests really, are always skewed to the sensibilities of the test maker, not the taker. Thus most intelligence exams favor those of the Western world, as that’s the cultural slant for whom they are written. In the same context, our measurement of animal linguistics is inherently flawed: we base intelligence not on objective observation– but on a species ability  and willingness  to communicate like us.

We have no way of knowing the true intelligence of any being. While Calvin the parrot may have had the English language ability of a human 3-year-old, we certainly didn’t understand him, didn’t always know what various clicks and songs meant. It is generally assumed by mainstream science that other animals simply make sounds out of involuntary reflex and are incapable of complex communication.

Over the years, research has been challenging this. Some species of whales for example have calls that travel thousands of miles, with recognizable “dialects” based on geographic locations, these forms of communication also change over time and generationally. In this article, it is said whales developed spindle cells a million years before human beings— the same brain cells we attribute to language development and self-awareness. Sound primitive?

I challenge my readers to consider their environment from this perspective. Just because a dog can understand 500 human words does not mean there is no meaning to his barking. We have limited senses too, and have not completely researched all there is to know about the complex ways in which other species communicate.


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