Today, we find human intelligence where we hadn't
meant to. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Theodore Barber, a
behavioral scientist, has been studying animal
intelligence. In his book, On the Human
Nature of Birds, he speaks much like a boy
telling us the emperor has no clothes.
He uses case histories about birds, and other
creatures as well, to puncture our old belief in a
gulf between human and animal intelligence. Each
case has a ring of familiarity.
A zoology professor rescues a hurt horned owl,
nurses it back to health, and releases it. The owl
returns daily to demand petting and friendship. A
tern is hurt. A pair of his nestmates comes. Each
takes a wing in its beak and they fly him as far as
they can. Then another pair comes and continues the
task. The action is far too calculated and unusual
Why is this human side of birds so unfamiliar?
Because, says Barber, we deal with two kinds of
birds. Free birds know we're a threat and avoid us.
Caged birds know us only as oversized jailers. Few
of us have ever really made friends with a free
Barber certainly isn't the first to make such an
argument. The Russian naturalist and political
theorist, Petr Kropotkin,
said much the same thing a century ago. He made
careful observations in Siberia. Then he argued
that the human characteristic of cooperation was
the common currency among all species.
Barber shows us the whole range of human behavior:
intelligence, altruism, love, tool-making, play,
negotiation. Of course we've all seen that. I spend
much of my life in transactions of this sort with
my dogs and cats. To do that, I have to turn off my
slavish committment to verbal intelligence and read
body language. Then I can enjoy the very human face
Barber focuses on birds because it's there we've
been most willing to accept the old myths about
animal intelligence -- that beasts are not
self-conscious, that they're little more than
preprogrammed, instinctive robots.
The zinger is Barber's point that we practice
doublethink. Most of us interact with the human
side of animals. We negotiate. We exchange
affection. Yet when it comes to eating, hunting,
and caging animals, our experience goes into the
closet. Giving human attributes to an animal is
what we do for children, or for the child within
us. We separate that from reality because those
human qualities stand to inconvenience us terribly.
So Barber asks: "What'll change if we accept our
vast kinship with other living things? What'll
become of our theology or our exercise of power?"
Accepting what we already know about that kinship
means huge change -- benificial change, no doubt,
but greater change than most of us are ready to
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds