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Why Nietzsche envied (and pitied) the stupidity of animals

Nietzsche both wished he was as stupid as a cow so he wouldn’t have to contemplate existence, and pitied cows for being so stupid that they couldn’t contemplate existence.
Credit: fottoo / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Friedrich Nietzsche was the perfect example of how too much thinking can literally break your brain.
  • Nietzsche both pitied and envied animals their lack of intelligence. That’s the kind of cognitive dissonance that generates big ideas.
  • We think of intelligence as a magic ingredient that you can sprinkle onto a boring old monkey, or a robot, or an alien and create something better. But would we actually be better off without it?

Excerpted from If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity, written by Justin Gregg and published by Little, Brown and Company.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900) had a magnificent mustache and a peculiar relationship with animals. On the one hand, he pitied animals because, as he wrote in Untimely Meditations, they “cling to life, blindly  and madly, with no other aim. . . with all the perverted desire of the fool.”1 Animals, he believed, stumble through life unaware of what they are doing or why they are doing it. What’s worse, he believed that they lack the intelligence to experience pleasure or suffering as deeply as us humans. For an existential philosopher like Nietzsche, that was a real bummer; finding meaning in suffering was Nietzsche’s whole shtick. But he also envied their lack of angst, writing: 

Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by: they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. This is a hard sight for man to see; for, though he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness.

Nietzsche both wished he was as stupid as a cow so he wouldn’t have to contemplate existence, and pitied cows for being so stupid that they couldn’t contemplate existence. That’s the kind of cognitive dissonance that generates big ideas. Nietzsche’s contributions to philosophy included challenging the nature of truth and morality, famously declaring God to be dead, and grappling with the problem of meaninglessness and nihilism. But his body of work came at a terrible price. In his personal life, he was a hot mess, the quintessential example of how too much profundity can literally break your brain.

As a child, Nietzsche had debilitating headaches that left him incapacitated for days on end.  At the height of his academic output, he experienced persistent depression, hallucinations, and thoughts of suicide. By 1883, at age thirty-nine, he declared himself “mad”— the same year his most famous book, Also sprach Zarathustra, was published. His mental state continued to decline even as his philosophical output skyrocketed. In 1888, Nietzsche rented a small apartment in the middle of Turin from his friend Davide Fino. Despite being in the throes of a mental health crisis, he wrote three books that year. One night, Fino looked through Nietzsche’s keyhole to find the man “shouting, jumping, and dancing around the room, stark naked, in what seems to have been a one-man re-creation of a Dionysian orgy.”  He would stay awake all night pounding out discordant songs on his piano with his elbows while screaming misremembered lyrics to Wagner operas. He was a creative genius, but clearly not a well man. And also a terrible neighbor. 

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Given his preoccupation with animal nature, it is perhaps fitting that it was an encounter with a horse that caused Nietzsche to suffer a final mental breakdown from which he never recovered. On January 3, 1889, Nietzsche was walking through the Piazza Carlo Alberto in Turin when he saw a coachman whipping his horse. Overcome, Nietzsche burst into tears, threw his arms around the animal’s neck, and collapsed in the street. Fino, who was working at a nearby newspaper kiosk, found him there and guided him back to his apartment. The poor philosopher remained in a catatonic state for a few days before being whisked off to a mental asylum in Basel, Switzerland. He never again regained his mental faculties.

The Turin horse, it seems, had been the final blow to Nietzsche’s fragile mental state. 

There has been much speculation as to the causes of Nietzsche’s mental illness, which blossomed into full blown dementia before his death. It could have been a chronic syphilitic infection, which can eat away at the brain. Or a vascular disease (CADASIL) that causes diverse neurological symptoms as brain tissue slowly atrophies and dies. Whatever the medical cause, there is no doubt that Nietzsche’s psychiatric problems were compounded by his intellectual genius, which spurred him to seek meaning, beauty, and truth in his suffering at the expense of his sanity. 

Was Nietzsche too smart for his own good? If we look at intelligence from an evolutionary perspective, there’s every reason to believe that complex thought, in all its forms throughout the animal kingdom, is often a liability. If there’s one lesson we can learn from the tortured life of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, it’s that thinking too hard about things isn’t necessarily doing anyone any favors. 

What if Nietzsche had been a simpler animal incapable of thinking so deeply about the nature of existence, like the Turin horse or one of those cows he pitied/envied so much? Or even a narwhal, one of my favorite marine mammals? 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. For narwhals to suffer a Nietzsche-like psychotic break, they would need to have a sophisticated level of awareness of their own existence. They’d need to know that they were mortal— destined to die one day in the not-so-distant future. But the evidence that narwhals or any animals other than humans have the intellectual muscle to conceptualize their own mortality is, as we’ll see in this book, thin on the ground. And that, it turns out, is a good thing.

What is intelligence? 

There’s a puzzling gulf between the way humans understand and experience the world, and the way all other animals do. There’s never really been any doubt that there’s something happening in our skulls that isn’t happening in the skulls of narwhals. We can send robots to Mars. Narwhals can’t. We can write symphonies. Narwhals can’t. We can find meaning in death. Narwhals can’t. Whatever our brains are doing that results in these miracles is clearly a result of that thing we call intelligence. 

Unfortunately, despite our utter confidence in the exceptionalism of human intelligence, nobody really has a clue as to what intelligence is. That’s not just a glib statement to say that we don’t have a good working definition. I mean that we’re not sure if intelligence even exists as a quantifiable concept. 

Consider the field of artificial intelligence (AI). This is our attempt to create computer software or robotic systems that are, as the name implies, intelligent. But AI researchers are not on the same page as to how to define this thing that they’re so keen on creating. In a recent survey of 567 leading experts working in the field of AI, a slim majority (58.6 percent) agreed that AI researcher Pei Wang’s definition of intelligence was probably the best:

The essence of intelligence is the principle of adapt ng to the environment while working with insufficient knowledge and resources. Accordingly, an intelligent system should rely on finite processing capacity, work in real time, open to unexpected tasks, and learn from experience. This working definition interprets “intelligence” as a form of “relative rationality.” 

In other words, 41.4 percent of AI scientists don’t  think this is what intelligence is at all. In a special issue of the Journal of Artificial General Intelligence, dozens more experts were given a chance to comment on Wang’s definition. In a completely unsurprising turn of events, the editors concluded that “if the reader was expecting a consensus around defining AI, we are afraid we have to disappoint them.” There is, and never will be, any agreement as to what intelligence is for an entire field of science focused exclusively on creating it. Which is a rather ridiculous state of affairs.

Psychologists aren’t doing any better, by the way. The history of defining intelligence as a single property of the human mind is messy stuff. The twentieth century English psychologist Charles Edward Spearman proposed the idea of the General Intelligence factor  (i.e., g factor) as a way of explaining why kids who were good at one kind of psychometric test also tended to be good at other types of psychometric tests.  It must be a quantifiable property of a human mind, the theory goes, that some people have more of than others. This is the kind of stuff that the SAT or IQ tests reveal. And when you give these kinds of tests to people around the globe, no matter what their cultural background, you do indeed find that some people are just generally better at all aspects of the test than others. But there’s no agreement as to if these performance differences are down to a single property of the mind— the g factor— that is generating thinking, or of the g factor is just the shorthand we use to describe the collective performance of a  huge subset of cognitive capacities churning away in the brain. Are each of these cognitive capacities working independently and just happen to be tightly correlated, or is there a kind of magical intelligence dust that gets sprinkled across all the cognitive systems, causing everything to work better? Nobody knows. At the core of the study of intelligence in the human mind is this utter confusion as to what we’re even talking about. 

Then we have animals. If you want to highlight the slipperiness of intelligence as a concept, just ask an animal behavior researcher to explain why crows are more intelligent than pigeons. You’ll often get an answer from folks like me along the lines of, “Well, you really can’t compare the intelligence of different species like this.” Which is code for “the question doesn’t make sense because nobody knows what the hell intelligence is or how to measure it.” 

But if you want the final nail in the coffin showing that wrangling intelligence is difficult bordering on ridiculous bordering on impossible, look no further than SETI: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. This is a movement inspired by an article in Nature published in 1959 by Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi—two scientists from Cornell who suggested that if alien civilizations were trying to communicate, they’d most likely do it through radio waves. This led to a gathering of scientists at Green Bank in West Virginia in November 1960, where the radio astronomer Frank Drake introduced his famous Drake equation, an estimate as to the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way intelligent enough to generate radio waves. The equation itself is full of wildly estimated (i.e., pulled out of thin air) factors, including the average number of planets that could support life, and the percentage of those planets that might go on to evolve intelligent life. 

The thing about SETI and the Drake equation is that they don’t even bother to provide a definition of what intelligence is. We are all just supposed to know what it is. It’s that thing that results in a creature’s ability to create radio signals. By that tacit definition, humans were not intelligent until such time as Marconi patented the radio in 1896. And we’ll probably stop being intelligent in a century or so when all our communication is handled by optical transmission instead of radio. This silliness is why Philip Morrison always hated the phrase the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, stating, “SETI has always made me unhappy because it somehow denigrates the situation. It wasn’t the intelligence we could detect; it was the communications we could detect. Yes, they imply intelligence, but that’s so evident that it’s better to talk about getting signals.”

What AI researchers, human psychologists, animal cognition researchers, and SETI scientists have in common is their belief that intelligence is a quantifiable phenomenon without an agreed upon method for quantifying it. We all just know it when we see it. Alien radio waves? Yep, that’s intelligence. Crows using a stick to fish ants out of a log? Yeah, that’s intelligence. Lieutenant Commander Data composing a poem for his beloved pet cat?  Yes, that’s intelligence for sure. This “I know it when I see it” approach to intelligence is the same method that US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously used to identify when something was pornographic. We all know what intelligence is just like we know what porn is. Spending too much time trying to define either is bound to make people uncomfortable, so most people don’t bother. 

What good is intelligence? 

At the heart of this discussion of intelligence is an unshakeable belief that intelligence, however we define it and whatever the heck it actually is, is a good thing. A magic ingredient that you can sprinkle onto a boring old monkey, or a robot, or an alien and create something better. But should we be so confident as to the added value of intelligence? If Nietzsche’s mind had been more narwhal-like— had he not been intelligent enough to ruminate on his impending death— his madness might have been less potent if not entirely absent. That would   have not just been better for him, but also for the rest of us. If Nietzsche had been born a narwhal, the world might never have had to endure the horrors of the Second World War or the holocaust— events that, through no fault of his own, Nietzsche helped create. 


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