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Penguins Do the Darndest Things!

There’s a new documentary in town, originally a French production with a farcical narrative, it’s been re-narrated in English as a more straight-ahead doc on the Emperor Penguin of Antarctica (March of the Penguins). Since I’m currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Antarctica” it was a good time to see this film and get a good look at the icescape of that little-known continent. But it was a great match with Jeremy Narby’s new book Intelligence in Nature: An Inquiry into Knowledge.

The Emperor penguins, as seen in this film, are remarkably human. But forgoing the obvious anthropomorphism of that notion, the specific behaviors of the penguins show remarkable intelligence. And that begs the same question as Narby’s book, ‘what is intelligence’? It turns out that the harder one tries to arrive at a working definition of ‘intelligence’ the more elusive it becomes. Narby quotes a plant biologist’s definition: “adaptively variable behavior during the lifetime of the individual”. This tries to encompass a wide range of observable behaviors that are inadequately explained as mere reflex responses to chemical signals, or any of the other myriad relatively mechanical explanations that have been commonly proffered by scientists for the past 200 years. What makes Narby’s book so interesting is his rational and rigorous attempt to discover and explain (mostly in other scientists’ work) the evidence of intelligence that has been held as a given by so-called primitive peoples who live in, e.g., Amazonian jungles.


One scene in particular struck me in the penguin documentary. The bizarre single file of female penguins is walking or waddling 70 miles to the sea to eat after birthing their eggs (and leaving them in the care of their male partners for two months). From time to time they encounter obstacles that have appeared, ice crevices being a common one. One by one, the penguins flop head first onto their bellies to span the crevice. In one scene, a penguin flops into the opposing edge of ice, and it looks kind of painful. The penguin behind it deftly sidesteps the widening crevice to a narrower spot where she can flop across more smoothly and comfortably. It looked just like people walking in a forest and when one has difficulty with a slippery spot or a branch, the one behind just walks around it.

A minor moment in the film and a relatively insignificant example amid the complex and remarkable social system of the emperor penguins that allows them to survive minus 80 F. temps and howling blizzards. But a perfect example of the kind of everyday practical adaptivity that many creatures are capable of.

In Narby’s book, he follows the trail of intelligently adaptive behavior through mammals to invertebrates (bees) and plants, all the way down to single cell slime molds. Along the way we meet a variety of scientists who are happy to be queried on their work, sometimes surprised to have Narby’s open-minded questions about the intelligence they are documenting. Of course, the notion of ‘intelligence’ becomes problematic. Is it thinking? Is it reasoning? Does it require language? Most definitions revolve around specifically human capacities. But in Japan Narby finds a new way of denoting what he’s trying to get at, one that escapes the limits of the common idea of ‘intelligence’. It’s called in Japanese chi-sei (pronounced chee-say), which Narby comes to understand as “capacity to know.”

In his chapter where he visits Toshiyuki Nakagaki in Sapporo, Nakagaki makes the obvious point that “consciousness” is but the tiny tip of a very large iceberg. To understand intelligence in humans requires more than an examination of what an individual knows she knows. The body carries out countless activities all day long that properly adapt to complex mathematical and biological problems, but without any conscious thought by the individual.

Inevitably the inquiry crashes back into Descartes and his early work defining human consciousness (“I think therefore I am”) as opposed to animal behaviors which he sees as fundamentally mechanical. I’m no expert on the huge field of cognition. There are a lot of theorists on all sides of the question, from psychologists to neurologists, biologists, chemists and philosophers. Narby’s important contribution with this modest book is to take an interdisciplinary cruise across a number of fields with his anthropologist’s eye, and shake up our complacent assumptions about what we know and, crucially, how knowing happens. This book is an easy and stimulating excursion into disquieting realizations that ultimately may launch us in altogether new directions politically and socially. Given the slow pace of historical change, even in speeded-up times like these, we may not see the changes that erupt from this new synthesis of hard science and traditional knowledge, but it’s heartening to know that the process has begun.

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