Buddhism and animal intelligence

Following the discussion from the last post.

Intelligent Animals
I’ve had many discussions with friends, classmates, and fellow bloggers over the years about animal intelligence. As one who has experienced the wisdom of non-human animals in countless interactions over the years, I find it puzzling that many people still doubt that non-human animals (or at least certain species) possess intelligence. Of course the intelligence of non-human animals depends on many things, much as it does in humans.

Three major factors to human (and non-) intelligence are 1) genetic capacity, 2) environment, and 3) disease or other damage.

We all know that not all people are born with the same capacity, but just how much this plays a role is a controversial topic. In general, though, my sense is that most of us will be roughly as (genetically) intelligent as our parents. Perhaps more important, however, is the environment we have – most importantly as children. If we are raised in a healthy home, exposed to reading, imaginative play, Mozart and so on in those early years, we are much more likely to develop those crucial neural pathways that will make life-long learning a breeze. If we are raised in fear/anxiety (survival-mode) due to abuse or neglect, or if we are simply not stimulated as much -spending hours in front of the TV – our brains just won’t develop that as much.* (see below) Lastly are the most obvious factors – the impact of disease or things like getting dropped your head one too many times (as my older brother often told me had happened to me).

All of these create a wide range of human levels of intelligence, from the Einsteins out there to people who are live in persistent vegetative states (PVS). However, despite where others fit in this range, most of us still afford them ‘human’ moral status. We don’t feel it would be ok to kill them or do them unnecessary harm.

My sense is that this is due to sub-rational conditions. Roughly stated: we experience people who are variously ‘like us’ in behavior and subconsciously/intuitively treat them as we would like to be treated. We extend this treatment to people who behave very differently (severe autistics, those in PVS, etc) out of a sense of commonality – again intuitive/non-rational – a sense that despite their apparent lack of the full range of human behaviors, they are still ‘like us’ in an important -moral- way.

Based on this, I wonder if it does much good to try to rationally convince people of the moral nature of animals? I could talk about female wolves adopting the pups of another female that has died, or of cases of chimpanzees sacrificing themselves for the sake of others, or pets doing extraordinary things to save their owners until I’m blue in the face. They might just respond, “oh that’s just evolutionary reactions or instincts, not intelligence.”

It seems to me that the way to get people to extend their moral sphere to non-human animals is not much different from the way we do it amongst humans – interaction. I’ve had the fortune of many experiences with wild and domesticated animals and to have seen their intelligence myself. Many others have not. And as the ‘wild’ of the world shrinks, the trend may be going the wrong way – more people raised without contact with animals, or contact of such a deprived form as to be nearly useless.

Like humans, other animals have various degrees of genetic intelligence – a chimpanzee will almost always be smarter than a cat or mouse. And similarly, environment makes a difference. Anyone who loves dogs knows that a dog raised by good owners will be pretty smart, affectionate, and attuned to people; dogs poorly raised will often turn out violent, depressed, and dull. Not to pick on my parents much, but they fall somewhere in the middle ground here – my mother adopted a service dog who, at the time of the adoption, probably knew 50+ commands, from opening and closing doors to picking keys up off of the floor. After a couple years with my mom, who hasn’t kept up the training, her dog probably only knows about a dozen commands and would appear to us as less intelligent than before.

As such, it seems likely that animals raised in poor conditions -e.g. factory farms- would seem less intelligent than they potentially could be. I can’t help but think back to prejudices against non-European people from past times, against Africans, Asians, Native Americans, and Jews. All of these groups (and others) have been judged ‘sub’-human at some point, and the results have been horrendous.

The Buddhist stance on animals in general is two-fold. First, the Buddha recognized the worth and dignity of non-human animals. Second, he also recognized that humans are in a special place – with enough free time to practice spiritual pursuits and enough suffering to have motivation to do so. With regards to intelligence itself though, Buddhism would always hold out a sense of unlimited potential for both humans and animals. In the Jatakas (birth stories of the Buddha’s previous lives), the Buddha himself is often an animal himself, and engages in great acts of wisdom and compassion toward both humans and fellow animals. As mentioned, we humans are particularly well-suited to practice the dhamma, but animals too are capable of practice and awakening.

Yet that Buddhist understanding is not based on mere doctrine. Like all “Buddhist” wisdom, it is based on expeirence. “Ehi passiko” – come and see (for yourself) exclaimed the Buddha. It is up to each of us to come and see the wisdom of animals, just as we should come and see the wisdom of different cultures, of different people, and different landscapes. Arguments and clever reasoning may do some good, but like most of you I need to see it to believe it. I have seen. Now it’s your turn.

What Do Animals Think?

Temple Grandin says animals think like autistic humans. She should know. (discover mag)


First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

– Columnist David Brooks, New York Times, May 13, 2008 – via Rod at Heron Dance

* Thanks to my friend for alerting me to my sloppy wording in that generalization. Based on my studies (this for example, and this), the brain of an abused/neglected child does develop differently, especially in the limbic system (the area that regulates emotional stability amongst other things). On personal terms, I definitely know brilliant people who went through terrible childhoods, so I don’t want my generalization to be mistaken for a universal statement. Even closer to home, I have been through some abuse (not by family, thankfully) in my life and coming out of it I could definitely look back and say, “wow, I wasn’t thinking clearly while I was in that.” Yet it does seem that abuse/neglect, while damaging the limbic system, does not affect higher-order cognition. So – and this is the good news for all who have been through it – if the correct ‘re-wiring’ of the limbic/emotional system can be accomplished, the clear thinking can come back through. The amount of work to do that is probably pretty proportional to the extent of the abuse over time and the timing in the person’s life.

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