From The Guardian:
Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that humankind was “a fantastic animal that has to fulfil one more condition of existence than any other animal”: we have to know why we exist. Justin Gregg, a researcher into animal behaviour and cognition, agrees, describing humankind as “the why specialists” of the natural world. Our need to know the reasons behind the things we see and feel distinguishes us from other animals, who make effective decisions without ever asking why the world is as it is.
Evidence of this unique aspect of our intelligence first appeared 44,000 years ago in cave paintings of half-human, half-animal figures, supernatural beings that suggest we were asking religious questions: “Why am I here? And why do I have to die?” Twenty-thousand years later, we began planting crops, revealing an awareness of cause and effect – an understanding of how seeds germinate and what to do to keep them alive. Ever since then, our constant questioning of natural phenomena has led to great discoveries, from astronomy to evolution.
But rather than being our crowning glory as a species, is it possible that human intelligence is in fact a liability, the source of our existential angst and increasingly apparent talent for self-destruction? This is the question Gregg sets out to answer in his entertaining and original book.
The delightfully absurd title stems from his claim that the 19th-century German philosopher, who had depression and eventually dementia, was “the quintessential example of how too much profundity can literally break your brain”. The “soul-tortured Nietzsche”, who sought meaning in suffering, is an example of how, as a species, we are simply too smart for our own good. By contrast, the narwhal (“one of my favourite marine animals”) demonstrates the fact that, from an evolutionary perspective, intelligence and complex thought are often a hindrance: “The absurdity of a narwhal experiencing an existential crisis is the key to understanding everything that is wrong about human thinking, and everything that is right about animal thinking.”
In search of evidence to support this theory, Gregg explores the nature of intelligence. Although non-human animals may have simpler minds than us, they are no less successful in their own way than we are, and do far less harm to their fellow beings: “The Earth is bursting with animal species that have hit on solutions for how to live a good life in ways that put the human species to shame.”
Link to the rest at The Guardian