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Review: “If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal,” by Justin Gregg

If Nietzsche Was a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity
Justin Gregg
320 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $29.


“Human, too human”: It occurred to me several times while reading Justin Gregg’s “If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal”, if only because the phrase also happens to be the title of Nietzsche’s own work. There is none. Greg’s clever and provocative book is full of irreverent concepts and amusing anecdotes — the creative advantages of being human animals. This means that it is possible to go too far.

“If Nietzsche had been born a narwhal, the world might not have had to endure the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust,” Greg wrote. What? This seems like a great example of what Greg calls our species-specific propensity for “unexpected antics.”

Such rhetorical distortions are probably the result of what he ridicules as our obsession with causal reasoning. Non-human animals live just fine with “learned associations.” They connect actions to consequences without having to understand why something is happening. However, humanswhy Specialist. You have to look for causality — which not only leads to some amazing achievements, but also some strange practices. It points to an old medieval remedy.

Greg studies animal behavior and is an expert in dolphin communication. He shows that human cognition is so complex that we can draw pictures and write symphonies. You can share ideas with each other so you don’t have to rely solely on instinct or first-hand experience to learn.

But this urge to learn can become unnecessary, he says. We are exposed to what philosopher Ruth Garrett Millikan calls “dead facts,” things like the distance to the moon and what happened in the latest episode of “Succession,” a world that is useless to our everyday lives. accumulate knowledge about A collection of dead facts “helps us imagine endless solutions to any problem we encounter, for better or worse,” Greg wrote.

“If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal” mostly sticks to disease, or how humans claim to be making things better when they are ultimately screwing things up. There are already many bookshelves on how we aren’t as smart as we think we are and how that smartness can lead us astray. Economics by Daniel Kahneman or Dan Ariely. But Greg makes a bigger case for how human intelligence has transformed the Earth. He clearly steps into the conflict between optimists like Stephen Pinker and pessimists like the British philosopher John Gray.

Complex thinking often becomes a long-term liability, says Greg. The big brains that allowed us to multiply as a species and domesticate the natural world are the forces that wreak such havoc on ecosystems that we unknowingly created the conditions for our own extinction. Fossil fuels have created prosperity while hastening the end of the world. Human ingenuity has been used to discover penicillin and commit atrocities. I correctly predict that the chances of raining death on the world are very low. But humans are another matter. “Narwhals don’t build gas chambers,” he points out.

It is certainly worth thinking about how much trouble humans can cause when our ambitions expand beyond our immediate needs. In his very human desire to express himself positively, he is prone to exaggeration, demonizing human experience while downplaying animal experience. He may not be in danger of creating a chicken nation, but chickens literally have a pecking order. says. Dr. Becky eats last. Greg is amazed at how stable their social structure is. Yes, stable. But is it just?

Let humans ask questions about justice. As for justice, there is nothing to say about natural selection or what Greg calls “the great arbiter of usefulness.” Human beings can instigate change and revolution because they can imagine realities that do not exist. Not that Greg denies this truth, but he writes mostly with a more controversial taste than an exploratory one. He extols how ‘happier’ and ‘healthier’ we can be if we follow the lead of non-human animals, but does not mention how the disabled nature can be. Hmm. wild chance.

Humans are also surprisingly cooperative. Primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy says humans often spend hours together on crowded planes without (usually) resorting to violence. Greg cautions against impressing himself too much, because unlike human animals, chimpanzees have never been observed to kill “all” members of rival groups. but does not mass-murder. Humans cooperate, which sounds good, but too often they cooperate to destroy others.

On the other hand, it can be of apparently “unnatural” length to show compassion for strangers or other races. Human existence is neither inherently good nor evil. Despite Greg’s comic twists — undeniably funny — the more subtle suggestion that permeates through his book is that our existence is more extreme than non-human animals. In addition to chickens, Greg keeps bees. Male bees, or drones, are equipped only to mate. Their tongues are too short to extract nectar, and they have no stingers to protect their nests. Bees push them out.

These helpless drones starve or freeze to death in what Greg calls “a tragic but perfectly natural situation.” He takes pity on them and leaves a chest of honey on his deck to give them rest before their impending doom. “I want to give them one last moment of happiness,” he writes.

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