If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal

(by Justin Gregg)

In this book, whose subtitle is “What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity,” Justin Gregg uses a Nietzsche quotation about cattle as a jumping-off point to explore the differences between animal intelligence/cognition and human intelligence/cognition, and the question of whether we can say that human intelligence is better. (Spoiler alert: Gregg thinks the answer is no.) This was another nonfiction bookclub pick that I probably never would have read on my own, but I found it to be a very interesting and approachable read. At first it felt like Gregg was trying a little too hard to be approachable, e.g. describing Nietzsche as “a hot mess”, but I think the book overall manages to find a tone that is clear, readable, and smart.

Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of intelligence/cognition, including how humans use causal inference while animals mostly use learned associations, how deception differs in animals and humans, what animals might know about death, the difference between animal norms and human morality, what consciousness means for animals and for humans, and the human problem of what Gregg calls “prognostic myopia,” which he defines as “the human capacity to think about and alter the future coupled with an inability to care all that much about what happens in the future.” I found all the chapters interesting, but highlights for me included the chapter on deception, the chapter on consciousness, and the chapter on prognostic myopia. Throughout, Gregg uses examples from various species to show how animal intelligence gets animals through their lives, while human intelligence gets us through our lives, mostly, and has resulted in things like literature and space exploration and modern medicine, but has also resulted in things like genocide and climate change. So perhaps, as Gregg puts it, “your mind is not quite the end all and be all of awesomeness”, even though it is different from animal minds.

(Side note: who else read Gregg’s description of aphantasia in this book and was like, “wait, what?!” I’d been aware of the existence of aphantasia previously and vaguely wondered about whether I might have it: I had a sense, for example, that when I read fiction I don’t visualize the characters the way that it sounds like some people do. But Gregg’s description made me feel like, oh, yeah, that’s me – “when I close my eyes, I know that I am thinking of what an apple looks like. I just don’t see an apple.” It’s weird though: I do think of myself as having a fairly vivid visual memory, but to me the act of remembering the visual details of something I’ve seen/someplace I’ve been feels different from an act of “conscious visual imagination.”)







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