Many of us realize how foolish it is to ask how intelligent an animal is, or to decide what we do to an animal based on how intelligent we believe that animal to be. Few would defend the notion that we can take the life of an animal because we think the animal is stupid. The truth is that none of us knows what it means to say of any particular animal that it is more intelligent than any other. Nor can any of us say what difference it would make even if we did know.
I want to make an even broader point: We don’t really know what it means to be intelligent in our own species. Lately I have been struck by how people who are definitely intelligent when it comes to sheer IQ power or the ability to create something, invent something, make a scientific discovery, or simply set the tone for the culture.
I collect strange lapses. Few would disagree that Stephen Hawking is one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein. Yet in his book about his own life, My Brief History, explaining how much he likes doing scientific work, he writes: “Someone once said that scientists and prostitutes get paid for doing what they enjoy.” It obviously does not occur to him that the vast majority of prostitutes do not enjoy what they are coerced (either literally or by circumstances) to do. He thought the remark was funny. It is profoundly offensive. Yet, with all his mighty brainpower, he cannot see this.
James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the structure of DNA, (without crediting the work by Rosalind Franklin that made it possible) famously said that stupidity is a disease. Yet he famously said how nice it would be if women could be genetically engineered to be pretty, and equally stupid, he claimed, in 2007, that he was gloomy about the prospects of Africa, because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really,” displaying in equal measure, arrogance, ignorance, racism, and profound stupidity. (London’s Science Museum rightly cancelled the talk he was supposed to give there).
When Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in 1965, he said that some of his earlier mistakes in theory were “like falling in love with a woman, it is only possible if you do not know much about her.” Lest you feel he was just joking, he ends the acceptance speech by comparing his earlier ideas this way: “But, we can say the best we can for any old woman, that she has been a very good mother and she has given birth to some very good children.” (There is much worse in his wildly popular book “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman.”)
Arthur Miller, the playwright, whose work delves into moral and ethical issues, committed his son, born with Down’s syndrome, to a mental institution when he was a week old, and cut him out of his life completely, not even mentioning him in his autobiography Timebends. When he died, the New York Times spoke of his “fierce belief in man’s responsibility to his fellow man.” A remarkably similar thing happened to Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst, who was also responsible for creating a moral crusade around the need to understand our deepest motivations. He too refused to acknowledge the existence of his son with the same condition. Both boys, by the way, went on to become remarkable achievers in their own way, something to make any father deeply proud.
Of course, at its most extreme, this cleavage between intelligence (narrowly defined) and the ability to see deeper truths is nowhere more evident than in the person of a physician and a Ph.D. scientist, Dr. Dr. Josef Mengele.
No animal, by the way, has ever behaved in this manner. Are we really Homo sapiens sapiens?