Bridle’s initial question for us is: What does it mean to be intelligent? There are many qualities we could list to describe intelligence: the ability to reason, reason, and understand; the ability to plan; Solve problems; emotional understanding; Creativity. But one of the most important definitions of intelligence is: what people do. When we say something is intelligent, we usually mean something that functions on the same level and in the same way as we do. We tend to think that humans are the only possessors of intelligence. It is what distinguishes us from “lower” beings.
That’s the first hurdle you have to take. Bridle constantly argues that what you thought about intelligence might not be exactly right, and who You thought it was intelligent, maybe you’re wrong. No, we’re not talking about this colleague who isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. We’re not talking about people at all. Bridle wants us to consider animal intelligence. From plants. From machines.
To do this, we must be open to the idea of a “more-than-human world.” This is a world where we do not separate from nature. We don’t see the world as full of smaller creatures. Bridle tells us: “The world is made up of subjects, not objects. Everyonething really is everyoneoneand all of these beings have their own agency, outlook, and way of life.”
We will get into the concept of “environment.” It comes from the 20th-century German biologist Jakob von Uexküll. The word means “environment” or “environment,” but it refers to “a particular organism’s particular perspective: its internal model of the world, composed of its knowledge and perceptions.”
Bridle gives us the example of a parasitic tick. The tick’s environment affects three factors: the smell of butyric acid, which tells the tick that an animal is nearby to feed on; a temperature of 98.6 degrees, which indicates the presence of warm blood; and mammalian hairs, through which the tick must navigate to reach its meal. These three specific things make up the universe of the tick.
Bridle says: “What matters is that an organism creates its own Environment, but also forms them again and again in encounters with the world. . . . Everything is unique and entangled. Of course, in a more-than-human world, it’s not just organisms that have one environment – everything does.”
So the world of the tick revolves around these three things and it acts accordingly. Does that make it smart? Rather, it depends on what standard one uses 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 piece of food could be attached to a string and placed just out of an animal’s reach. By pulling the string and pulling the food, the animal demonstrates the ability to recognize a problem, think it through, make a plan, and carry it out. The animal has proven its intelligence.
Researchers have been playing this game with chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans for decades. But early tests on gibbons, another primate, failed miserably. The gibbons made no move to fetch the food. So… are gibbons dumb? Not exactly. Gibbons are tree dwellers. They live in trees. To facilitate climbing and rocking, gibbons have extended fingers. This makes it difficult for them to pick up objects lying on flat surfaces. Dragging food along the ground on a string is not a natural gibbon scenario. Researchers tried again. This time they hung the food from the ceiling with strings. It was only then that the gibbons realized a familiar problem – finding food in the trees they live in – and they tugged at the strings to get the food. The gibbons didn’t suddenly become intelligent. The original test missed what makes them smart.
Bridle tells us clearly: “Intelligence . . . is not something to be tested, but something to be recognized, in all the varied forms it takes. The task is to find out how to become aware of it, how to connect with it, how to manifest it. This process is itself a process of entanglement, of opening up to forms of communication and interaction with the whole of the superhuman world. . . . It is about changing ourselves and our own attitudes and behaviors rather than changing the conditions of our non-human communicants.”
Bridle will tell you that plants have an environment from their own. In addition, plants can hear, says the author. You read that right. 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 believe me you will. You will also believe what Bridle has to say about machines and artificial intelligence.
You will soon understand how Bridle argues, “everything is intelligent and therefore deserves—along with many other reasons—our care and conscious attention.” In the author’s view, intelligence is relational, and all organisms are interconnected. we share this world. You, me, your dog, ticks. Bridle writes: “What counts is in relationships rather than things – between us and not in us. … Intelligence is an active process, not just a mental ability. As we rethink intelligence and the forms in which it occurs in other beings, we will begin to break down some of the barriers and false hierarchies that separate us from other species and the world.”
In this book, Bridle created a new way of thinking about our world, about being. How would we live our lives and change our world if we embraced this thinking? If we didn’t put ourselves at the center of everything? Please read this important book. Read it twice. talk about it tell everyone you know
Brenna Maloney is the Editor of the National Geographic Society and the author of “Buzzkill: A wild trek through the strange and endangered world of bugs‘, which will be released in October.
Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 364 pages. $30