If Civilization Is So Impressive, Why Aren’t Animals Impressed?

Ancient Egyptian cat under a chair (via)

Humans think we’ve built something special, but I’m not so sure. If you show any of our civilizational marvels to animals they just blink at us. We think this is because they’re dumb, but what if they’re right and we’re wrong?

Humans — because we perceive things the same way — take for granted that Shakespeare or pyramids or music are singularly impressive, but we’re obviously biased. It’s not clear that our activities are categorically better than whale song or dung balls or bird calls. That is to say, they don’t transcend the category of ‘something-this-species-is-really-into’ into something ‘higher’, as we claim that they are. We think that Shakespeare is obviously better than anything whales are coming up with, but we don’t know what whales are coming up with. And it’s certainly not obvious to them. The truth is that every species thinks its own stuff is the best. We’re not even unique in that regard.

I’ve seen some bird mating dances (on TV) and they’re very complicated, inventive, and impressive. Then I watch what humans are doing on TV and I can’t say that it’s categorically different. If you listen to our popular music it’s 95% mating calls. As the Bloodhound Gang sang, ‘you and me baby, ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.’ A lot of what we call classic art is painting ourselves naked. Back in ye olde days getting a portrait would have been the closest you could get to a thirst trap to send to a distant suitor. One theory of art is that a lot of it is sexual sublimation, subsuming the creative sexual impulse into other sorts of creation. We say there’s some higher beauty there, but I think the birds create higher beauty also. We’re both highly motivated by booty as well.

The idea of civilization is that it’s some categorical leap in animal behavior, such that it makes us more than animals. But if so, wouldn’t other animals be impressed? Wouldn’t they have some dim sense of wanting to be like us? We look at birds and want to fly, we look at cheetahs and want to run, but what do they see when they look at us? If you go on safari, the animals barely look back at us at all.

I’ve had a kabaragoya (basically a small Komodo dragon) inside my house and the reptile was not impressed at all. She just thrashed about on the sofa, broke art with her tail, and left scales all about. It’s not like she looked at our art or turned on the TV, it was all just junk to her. She was just happy to get out, jump in the drain, and return to her home in the canal. I’d see her outside the flat sometimes but she never asked to be let back in. From her perspective, it was a shithole.

We think this behavior is because animals are stupid, because they can’t appreciate human culture, and we dream of some aliens that would understand us. But that seems even less likely. If our own relatives don’t understand what we’re doing, why would complete foreigners? We keep looking for ‘intelligent’ life in the universe and ignoring/killing the intelligent life around us. And we ignore what they’re actually telling us.

It’s not that animals find nothing about us interesting. They’re certainly interested in food, and scratches, and have a fear/respect for our violence. Humans can have deep relationships with animals based on these few elements. We can connect with real emotion, on both sides I think. But all of the stuff we take so seriously — money, status, beauty, science — it’s not clear that those are ‘higher’ categories, because they don’t cross species.

I’m also not saying that animals don’t have their own versions of money, status, beauty, or even science. It’s just that whatever we’re doing, it’s not so much objectively better that other animals even recognize it. It doesn’t elevate us above them. I guess you could say they notice in the sense that we’re killing them, but is that really something to be proud of? We might be wise to focus on food and scratches, which seem to have a shared, higher meaning. Presumably if any alien life arrived it would at least be hungry and itchy as well. Perhaps we should have inscribed that on the Voyager plate, “we have scratches.” That seems to be the only ‘digital’ technology animals care about.

Beneath all the talk of civilization collapse there’s the assumption that it shouldn’t collapse, that we’ve built something special, that it should be spread to other planets and preserved. I honestly feel this too, but I’m biased. Humans aspire to some objective greatness, and for that we can’t evaluate ourselves. It just won’t do. We need some other lifeform to validate us and even domesticated animals like cats and dogs simply don’t.

If we ask any objective third party — even ones completely dependent on us— and they’ll just show us their butthole or fall asleep on the keyboard. The only thing my dog seems to find impressive about human civilization is facial tissue, preferably used. Cats are even more dismissive.

What we do know is that all of our relatives (including us) seem to appreciate open land and a salubrious climate, but that’s precisely what we destroy. And for what? To replace it with concrete jungles that even we don’t even enjoy. And we call this civilization. We call it progress. It’s certainly something, but does it make us better than the animals? I think it’s actually an easier argument to say it makes us worse, because we destroy what is common for that which is obscure. In our striving for great civilization, we’re incredibly rude to every other creature on Earth. The civil thing would be to listen to the intelligent creatures either unimpressed by us or fleeing in terror. Hence, it might be better to have a decent meal, scratch our tummies, scratch somebody else’s tummy, and just enjoy the weather.