Humans are a mix of brilliantly intelligent and tragically stupid. The way our collective stupidity is often revealed is in how ignorant we are about things we don’t yet understand. We are born assuming we know everything. It takes time and maturity to realize we don’t. Einstein said the more he knew the more he realized he didn’t know. That is what real intelligence is: that ability to keep part of your mind open to things you don’t yet know.
Approaching life with certainty rather than humility is a recipe for a life full of disappointment. Rather, to always maintain a sense of wonder, and to try hard to keep those doors open you will evolve as a person, as a thinker, as a human being.
There probably aren’t many people who would swim in very cold water and pay close attention to the behavior of one tiny charismatic octopus and yet that is what Craig Foster does in the magnificent documentary My Octopus Teacher.
Overcoming personal trauma Foster dives with his camera under the water and befriends an octopus. If you didn’t know, they are intelligent creatures with very short lives. To know one is to have your heart broken almost immediately because you know their life cycle is so short. That means they have to be born with their intelligence highly evolved already, as there is not much time to learn new things.
If you know how to recognize intelligence in animals you start noticing it everywhere. In the mornings when I take my dog Jack, a collie mix I found traveling to Colorado in the Four Corners, out for a walk he looks up at me while we’re in the elevator – what he’s looking for is a command from me as he’s been bred as a herding dog, or at least part of him has. If I give him a directive his face lights up because now he has a purpose. Chasing a ball, or finding someone he knows are two of those things. But most of the time I do what a primate does when making a visual connection, I try to communicate other things, like love – or silly phrases like, “Who’s Jack?”
But I know my dog’s intelligence in how he wanders on our walks, where he wants to go, and only part of that is his need to sniff things. He has evolved with traits he needs to survive. Does that make him an apex predator? No. He is not. He is a scrapper and a scavenger who evolved alongside humans – the better he serves humans the better chance of survival. And so he looks up at me and waits for a command. It’s okay, I think, you don’t have to serve me, Jack. You can have your autonomy. Of course, he can’t. He could never survive if unleashed and set free. HIs survival depends on a human taking care of him.
You don’t have to spend much time online before you are confronted with yet another animal cruelty video. Whether it’s the dog thrown off the bridge, or the cat set on fire, or the horse collapsing during a carriage ride – the internet tells us this cruelty is ubiquitous. Most of us can compartmentalize those videos and think, “I am not them.” But it’s more complicated when we think about what we do to very intelligent pigs in this country. We can’t think about that because it is too big of a problem. It is much easier for us to have someone we can blame for the crime of animal cruelty rather than an entire species that is silently condoning something future generations will not forgive.
It isn’t just that we put pigs in factory farms, it’s that we continue the practice of gestation crates, which means a pig must spend her entire life on her side, birthing one litter of babies after another. She can’t get up. She can’t play with them. She can’t teach them how to forage for food she can only feed them until they are old enough to be slaughtered, at which time they are sent away and she is impregnated again. There is nothing she can do but lay there for her entire life. This goes on in this country every day to feed millions of people. Knowing this, it’s hard for me ultimately to ever be that trustful or admiring of our species, even when we say we are good, especially when we say we are good.
There is something about intelligence, the intelligence of pigs or dogs or whales or dolphins that makes us stop and think about how we treat them. A friend of mine always says, why should it matter? And she’s right. Why would we be kinder to more intelligent animals? Probably because we see more of ourselves in them and we are inherently a narcissistic species. Or maybe it’s that, on some unconscious level, we know they know how horrible we are.
When I watched My Octopus Teacher I was in a place where I could not find any decency anywhere I looked. That is because with the pandemic so many of us had no “real world,” only a virtual one. The internet is populated by sociopaths. At least their online persona indicates that. If you spend any time on Twitter or Facebook there won’t seem to be much to admire in how we attack each other viciously, dehumanize others because we don’t agree with them, invest so much of ourselves displaying ourselves. That is why we need art. That is why art is invented. It can say what we can’t.
That is what My Octopus Teacher is – art. Yes, it’s a documentary and it really did happen, but it is told through the eyes of an artist who took his camera and followed around a tiny octopus in her one year life cycle, befriended her, became invested in the life or death struggle of her every day, noticed how she played with fish out of boredom or wonder, noticed how she fashioned herself into a rock sculpture then attached herself to the surface of a shark to outsmart the shark. The octopus noticed him noticing her – their shared intelligence brought them together and they became friends. That is what intelligence can do. It can transcend instinct and ask the question whether this creature I am encountering is going to kill me or not.
That someone had this level of sensitivity, this much emotional involvement in a little tiny bright light gave me hope. It reminded me of our capacity for kindness and love. Every day in every town all over the world there are random acts of kindness that all too often go unnoticed unless someone captures them on camera or in a story.
We are really good at noticing and condemning the bad things people do but we’re not so good at seeing or appreciating the flip side of our cursed species. Our brains give us the capacity to stop what we’re doing and notice that a tiny elusive fluid creature is looking back at us and wondering who we are. Lucky for her, and lucky for us, this human could be trusted.
Although we have to watch her life cycle, which means also her death, Foster takes with him the experience of having evolved from that encounter. He had more courage. He wanted to spend more time among the creatures of the sea and teach his son how to look more closely at something he can barely see wiggling underneath the surface of the water. He healed his heart from trauma because he connected with a creature who was able to communicate with him even without a shared language.
What you realize if you spend enough time around animals and you listen to them carefully, watch them closely, and humanize them you will find we share many of the same traits. Why wouldn’t we, when we evolved from the same set of DNA building blocks, more or less. While this is especially true with mammals, who are also driven by love, fear and survival – it is also true, though it might be harder to see, of Cephalopods.