kafka and the ape


If animal intelligence exists, it is of course a property of living animals. This may appear as a departure from our guiding concern, shared with the comparative anatomists at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, with the study of natural order as reflected through the anatomical evidence of –obviously– dead animals. No one disputes that a human skeleton in a display case is no more or less intelligent than a macaque in formaldehyde. Yet it is hard to look for too long at these different products of nature and not come to the conclusion that they are substantially the same, that they are diverse expressions of the same order, and if the one exhibits a different behavioral repertoire than the other over the course of its brief life, this does not, could not, place them on separate sides of a gaping divide from one another. It is sometimes said that death is the great equalizer, and this is born out by the project of comparative anatomy, which reveals the fundamental unity of structure that, in life, permits such an efflorescence of different sorts of activity. We are in the habit of calling our own sort of activity ‘intelligent’, and of permitting ourselves to be perpetually surprised when animal activity resembles our own too closely, since intelligence has already been defined as uniquely human. It is undeniable that humans are peculiar: as has been said, their crania are greatly inflated compared to their nearest primate relatives, and their teeth are greatly reduced. But a good strong bite is an expression of nature’s reason too, and comparative anatomy helps to see that in the balance between teeth and cranium, there is no absolute reason for preferring the one advantage or the other.

more from Justin E. H. Smith at Belfrois here.