092: Leaving a Better World is More Complicated Than You Think

In This Episode: It used to be that humans thought they were special because we can think. We might be a little special, but we’re not as far above other animals than what we want to believe. And the implications of that are profound.

092: Leaving a Better World is More Complicated Than You Think

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Show Notes

  • Help Support Uncommon Sense — yes, $5 helps!
  • What is the Norden bombsight.
  • The book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina, came out in 2015.
  • Other books mentioned: Factfulness (2018) by Hans Rosling, and Enlightenment Now (2018) by Steven Pinker.
  • Infant Mortality: The U.S. is #47(!) in infant mortality, at 6.5 under-5 deaths per 1000 live births. San Marino is #1 with 1.7; Iceland 2.0. Also ahead of the U.S. in that list are (in order) Slovenia, Cyprus, Montenegro, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Japan, Singapore, Sweden, Luxembourg, Andorra, Italy, Monaco, Spain, Belarus, Czech Republic, South Korea, Ireland, Belgium, Austria, Australia, Latvia, Hungary, Israel, Lithuania, Portugal, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Switzerland, U.K., Poland, France, New Zealand, Croatia, Canada, Cuba, Serbia, Russia, Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Qatar. Politicians like to say the U.S. has the best healthcare in the world. It’s a lie: we’re not even close on many measures.
  • The index of articles/podcasts in this series is https://thisistrue.com/longevity/.


Welcome to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.

Episode 26 talked about the implications of Koko the gorilla, who proved she could think because …she could talk to humans. Not grunts, but American Sign Language, where she could form sentences, express likes and dislikes, and even plan for the future.

The “Blue Marble” photograph of Earth, taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on 7 December 1972. (Photo: NASA)

Others might say that Koko was a one-off: a particularly smart gorilla, or maybe even that gorillas are particularly smart as far as animals go, not the bird-brains that, well, birds are.

The thing is, animals other than gorillas use tools. Monkeys, for instance, find just the right stick to shove into a hole to rile up termites, which the monkeys eat when they come to the surface. So maybe it’s primates that are smart, leaving the bird-brains for, well, the birds!

There’s a problem with that hypothesis: birds can think too. They even use tools. They’ll grab a rock, get above shellfish on the beach, and drop their rocks on the shellfish to crack them open so they (the birds) can eat the sea creatures.

So, think about that: they not only figured out rocks can be tools so they can get some nice seafood, but as they’re flying with those rocks, they manage to figure out just when to drop the rock to hit the shellfish. They can aim. They can grasp the trajectory to land that rock in the right spot without the aid of a Norden bombsight!

That shows understanding (those rock-like shells have food inside!), but even problem-solving (apply a common object as a tool), even a little geometry without Mrs. Noroña, my long-suffering high school geometry teacher who tried, pretty much without success, to get those problem-solving tools into my head. At least she gave me a little understanding of algebra.

And no, I don’t think it’s just instinct for birds — that it’s somehow encoded into their genomes to just know that shellfish are a food source, how to recognize them, pick up a rock, and fly just right to drop that rock onto the shellfish so they can eat it. Not any more than you’re genetically encoded to use a can opener to get the main ingredient of a tuna sandwich.

My wife’s cat frequently played honest-to-goodness hide and seek with her! Really. Elephants mourn their dead. Octopuses don’t only open jars, they can figure out how to escape labs, which took planning. I don’t think there’s any conclusion other than: animals think.

Dr. Carl Safina, the inaugural holder of the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University, and the author “Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel”, says that “In many cases [animals] know who they are. They know who their friends are and who their rivals are. They have ambitions for higher status. They compete. Their lives follow the arc of a career, like ours do.”

I’ll link to his book on the Show Page.

He concludes that “It seems illogical for us to think that animals might not be having a conscious mental experience of play, sleep, fear or love.”

Besides, pretty much every dog owner I know believe with all their hearts that their dog loves them. So what is it, again, that makes us so special that we are at the top of the animal kingdom? That we took it up a few notches? Not a compelling argument. Hell, I read a news item today that cows can be potty trained in about two weeks. Cows! Humans typically take three to six months!

Meanwhile, we’re polluting our own water supplies so badly that the human reproduction rate is falling significantly, and some researchers think human population has peaked, and is about to start trending down. Yeah, that’s great evidence of thinking. We’re so smart it’s long been a joke that the only survivors of humanity’s time on Earth will be cockroaches. Yay humans! We just may make that “joke” reality, and might not even use hydrogen bombs to do it.

At this point, you may be a bit surprised to learn I’m actually optimistic. I believe we’ll solve even the big problems. Climate change, for instance, even though some believe it’s too late to avoid catastrophe no matter what. It’s likely we’ll first buy some time by using technology to cool the Earth temporarily while we engineer a long-term solution. We’ll not just filter water better (and cheaply), we’ll be able to cheaply make seawater into fresh water. We’ll figure out how to deploy bacteria that eat plastic, and maybe even excrete something useful. We’ll stop being the cause of animal extinction due to our stupidity.

Perhaps paradoxically, we’ll do that by living longer and healthier lives. (So yeah, this episode is actually part of my series on longevity.) It’s becoming more and more likely that we won’t conveniently be dead when our great grandchildren want to know what decisions we made to make the world habitable for them. We’ll be forced to look them in the eye and account for our actions, so we better get started on making good decisions.

We’ll work longer because we’re healthy — and because we want to. We won’t spend so much money on healthcare because we will solve most diseases, with huge leaps coming in most of our lifetimes. Advances are already starting to come out of the research labs.

What will we do with that money instead, the money we spent on healthcare, much of it keeping people with terrible life quality alive another six weeks? We’ll make life better, we’ll make our planet better, because just as we have developed the technology to destroy life, we’re starting to deploy that technology to counter those tendencies. Society is actually, and finally, starting to think. Hell, we may even stop fighting wars.

We’ve long understood deep down that older people are wise, and that’s about to grow exponentially as we not only have much longer lifespans, but much longer healthspans where we have much more knowledge and healthy brains to put our minds to solving the problems that we ourselves have generated with our completely unsustainable lifestyles.

The world is already getting so much better, as discussed in books like “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling, which is next on my own reading list, and “Enlightenment Now” by Harvard’s Steven Pinker. I’ll link to them on the Show Page. Worldwide infant mortality is down so much that the United States isn’t in the lead in that score: we have able competition! And as discussed in the previous episode, we may very soon have a line on avoiding most cancer mortality.

Things seem darkest before the dawn.

So keep doing your part: teach your kids and grandchildren to think, because they’re going to be doing it for a long, long time, and they’ll likely live long enough to watch their great-grandchildren grow up and have children of their own. So let’s leave them a world where they can be healthy.

The Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast92, and I look forward to reading your thoughts about all of this in the comments. And hey: be nice to animals. The word for that is “humane” — and the root of that word is …human.

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

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5 Comments on “092: Leaving a Better World is More Complicated Than You Think

  1. Society is actually, and finally, starting to think. Hell, we may even stop fighting wars.

    I’m seeing very little evidence of that first sentence. And until people stop killing each other over ideologies, e.g. religion, I’m not optimistic about the latter.

    Do look at the books I referenced. -rc

      • Instead, we’ve had 75 years of “proxy wars”, in which “our” friends fight “their” friends outside Europe/North America, and wars in which a North American or European power fights a war in the Third World, sometimes against a “friend” of the rival superpower.

  2. Some years ago, a friend commented that everything humans do, animals can do also. She gave several examples including using tools, building and I believe, wearing clothes or coverings. I don’t recall all of the examples she gave, but it was interesting. Also, it shows the arrogance of humans who think they are special. Not so fast!

    Thanks for a great story.

  3. Lyall Watson brought me to the same perspective as you demonstrate here, Randy. His Lifetide especially ~ and his Dark Nature. Watson was a protege of Desmond Morris, and spent a lot of his life on the high seas in his boat. He saw the wonder and the garbage of us humans, and had no illusions about both the capacities and limits of all species.


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