Bridle’s opening question for us is: what does it mean to be smart? There are many qualities that we could list to describe intelligence: the ability for logic, reasoning and comprehension; the ability to plan; problem solving; emotional understanding; creativity. But one of the most important definitions of intelligence is: what humans do. When we talk about something smart, we usually mean something that works on the same level and in the same way that we do. We tend to think of humans as the sole possessors of intelligence. This is what separates us from “inferior” beings.
This is the first hurdle you must overcome. Bridle constantly argues that what you thought about intelligence might not be entirely accurate, and who you thought that was smart, maybe that’s not true either. No, we’re not talking about that co-worker who isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. We’re not talking about humans at all. Bridle wants us to consider the intelligence of animals. Of plants. Machines.
To do this, we must be open to the idea of a “more than human world”. It is a world in which we do not separate ourselves from nature. We do not see the world as filled with lesser creatures. Bridle tells us: “The world is made up of subjects, not objects. Allthing really is everyaand all of these beings have their agency, their views, and their life forms.
We are introduced to the concept of “umwelt.” It comes from the 20th century German biologist Jakob von Uexküll. The word translates to “environment” or “environment,” but it refers to “the particular perspective of a particular organism: its internal model of the world, made up of its knowledge and perceptions.”
Bridle gives us the example of a parasitic tick. The tick’s umwelt involves three factors: the smell of butyric acid, which tells the tick that there is an animal nearby to feed on; a temperature of 98.6 degrees, which indicates the presence of warm blood; and mammalian hair, which the tick must navigate to reach its meal. These three specific elements constitute the universe of the tick.
Bridle says, “Basically, an organism creates its own umwelt, but also continually reshapes him in his encounter with the world. . . . Everything is unique and entangled. Of course, in a more than human world, it is not only organisms that have a umwelt – all does.
So the tick’s world revolves around these three things, and it acts accordingly. Does that make him smart? Rather, it depends on the yardstick you use to measure intelligence.
Humans are so human-centric that we don’t always ask the right questions. A classic intelligence test is to see if a subject can solve a problem using a tool. A tempting morsel of food can be tied to a string and placed just out of an animal’s reach. By pulling the string and bringing the food closer, the animal demonstrates its ability to recognize a problem, think about it, come up with a plan and execute it. The animal demonstrated its intelligence.
Researchers have been playing this game with chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans for decades. But the first tests on gibbons, another primate, failed miserably. The gibbons made no effort to retrieve the food. So… are gibbons stupid? Not exactly. Gibbons are arboreal. They live in trees. To facilitate climbing and swinging, gibbons have elongated toes. This makes it more difficult for them to pick up objects lying on flat surfaces. Dragging food on the ground with a string is not a natural gibbon scenario. The researchers tried again. This time they hung the food from the ceiling with strings. It was only then that the gibbons recognized a familiar problem – finding food in the trees where they live – and they pulled on the ropes to retrieve the food. Gibbons didn’t suddenly become intelligent. The original test missed what makes them smart.
Bridle clearly tells us: “Intelligence. . . is not something to be tested, but something to be recognised, in all the multiple forms it takes. The task is to find how to become aware of it, associate with it, make it manifest. This process is itself a process of entanglement, of opening up to forms of communication and interaction with the totality of the more than human world. . . . It involves changing ourselves and our own attitudes and behaviors rather than changing the conditions of our non-human communicators.
Bridle will tell you that the plants have an umwelt of their own. Plus, plants can hear, says the author. You read correctly. Bridle will tell you that plants also have the ability to remember things. I can’t do justice to the explanation of the book in this short review, but trust me, you will. You will also believe what Bridle has to say about machines and artificial intelligence.
You quickly come to understand, as Bridle argues, “everything is smart, and therefore – along with many other reasons – deserves our attention and conscious attention”. For the author, intelligence is relational and all organisms are interconnected. We share this world. You, me, your dog, the ticks. Bridle writes: “What matters is the relationships rather than the things – between us rather than within us. … Intelligence is an active process, not just a mental capacity. By rethinking intelligence and the forms in which it appears in other beings, we will begin to break down some of the barriers and false hierarchies that separate us from other species and from the world.
In this book, Bridle has created a new way of thinking about our world, of being. How would we live our lives and change our world if we bought into this thought? If we did not place ourselves at the center of everything? Please read this important book. Read it twice. Talk about that. Tell everyone you know.
Brenna Maloney is the editor of the National Geographic Society and author of “Buzzkill: a wild wandering in the strange and threatened world of insectswhich will be published in October.
Animals, plants, machines: the search for planetary intelligence
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 364 pages. $30