Intelligence in Nature: Our Family Tree of Life

Author and anthropologist Jeremy Narby started contemplating new ways to think about nature when he lived in the Peruvian Amazon with the Ashaninka people for a few years. This community used the word “ashaninka” to refer not only to themselves, but also to the other species around them, suggesting kinship. In a world dominated by Western ways of thinking, Narby is now using this idea to challenge human-centrism in our relationship with nature.

Narby shows how this growing disconnect between humanity and the Earth we’re a part of is an obstacle to living responsibly in the biosphere. His work shows that humans have a lot to learn about consciousness from the unique and innate sense of intelligence in natural life. By recognizing plant intelligence, animal cognition and evolutionary biology, we can honor our place in the Earth’s family tree, which is the full tree of life.

A long time ago, I spent a couple of years living with the Ashaninka people in the Peruvian Amazon, and these are people who know a lot about plants and animals. In fact, they have a name in their language for just about every species living in the forest. But they spoke of plants and animals in a way that I found unusual, as intelligent beings with personalities and intentions, and to have kinship with humans. They even called some species ashaninka, which was their word for themselves, meaning our people or our  relatives.

So white herons were ashaninka. Manioc plants were our sisters. Small birds were our many brothers. Armadillos were brothers-in-law.

The Ashaninka tended to personify other species and to relate to them through kinship. It turned out this view was fairly common among Amazonian people, but it took me a long time to come to grips with it.

I began working as an activist and fundraiser for Indigenous initiatives in the Amazon, and as an independent anthropologist, I also tried to make sense of the Amazonian point of view. This led me some 25 years ago to start looking into domains like biology, botany, and neurology. And at the time it was already clear that biology confirms human kinship with other species, and that all living beings are genetically related. Scientists were starting to document intelligent behavior in all kinds of living organisms. The more science looked at the intricacies of the natural world, the more intelligence it seemed to find.

This encouraged me to look into intelligence in nature, a subject that concerned both science and Indigenous knowledge. So in the early 2000s, I interviewed scientists in different countries who were working on this subject, only to find that there was a basic problem with words. So when a Japanese scientist demonstrated that a single-celled slime mold could solve a maze, Western commentators objected to his using the word “intelligence” to describe the slime’s behavior. The problem was that Western thinkers tended to consider intelligence as a human exclusivity. They had defined it over the centuries in many different ways, most of which were in exclusively human terms making it difficult for other species to qualify, especially single cells of slime. So the word “intelligence” was human-centered.

But so was the word “nature.” The Dictionary defines nature as the phenomena of the physical world — including plants, animals and the landscape — as opposed to humans and human creations. The word “nature” means everything that is not human, and anthropologists have pointed out that this is a concept specific to Western cultures.

If you go to the Amazon, for example, and ask people there about their word for nature, for everything that is not human, they say they have no such concept. And on the contrary, they tend to view most other species as people like us.

Meanwhile, modern Western thinkers have tended to put human beings in a category of their own, above all other species, arguing that, for example, animals are incapable of thinking because they lack language. But recent scientific research has just proved the contrary, and that even small invertebrates like bees think and handle abstract concepts. And numerous other species have systems of communication, some of which are close to human language.

Photo by Joshua Cotten | Unsplash

Take prairie dogs. They have a sophisticated form of verbal communication involving high-pitched chirps that they use to describe the world around them. They can describe intruders according to species, size, shape, speed, and color. A prairie dog may chirp: “Here comes a small, thin human wearing blue moving slowly,” or “here comes a tall, yellow coyote moving fast.” Prairie dogs have brains the size of grapes, but they chirp away all day long, and scientists have just begun to understand them.

Now, there is strong evidence that numerous species think, feel, remember, and plan, and have language-like abilities and systems of communication. This has led some Western thinkers to move away from constantly affirming the centrality of human beings. But here I’d like to mention a new concept that would keep humans at center stage – the Anthropocene, a supposedly new geological era ushered in by human impacts on the biosphere. The word comes from the Greek anthropos (human being) and kainos (new), and roughly means “the age of humans.” It’s not an official scientific concept yet but it seeks to draw attention to human activities like driving species out of existence, poisoning ecosystems, deforestation, warming the climate, and leaving radioactive contamination and garbage all over.

But naming today’s geological age after humanity hides the importance of other species like bacteria and plants in the functioning of the biosphere. It also dilutes responsibility for ecological damage among humans. Indigenous People who oppose oil extraction in the rainforest are surely less responsible for degrading the biosphere than most people living in industrialized societies. The problem is not humanity in general but certain humans in particular. And naming today’s geological age after our species has narcissistic overtones, if only because no previous geological age bears the name of a single species.

So instead of affirming the centrality of humans for the umpteenth time, it would be interesting to move beyond the anthropo-centered frame that has enclosed Western minds for centuries and build a new, less destructive relationship with the other species living on this planet.

The human-centered concepts of Western cultures have disparaged the other species of this world for so long that most existing legal systems consider plants and animals like objects. The only subjects being humans, of course. But this is starting to change. In divorce cases, some judges are starting to consider the family dog as a member of the family rather than as a possession. If the dog is a possession, the answer to the question, “Who gets the dog?” is the person who paid for it. But if the dog is like a person or a child, the question becomes, “What is in the best interests of this person?” So dogs are starting to get a paw in the door of personhood in some places.

But “person” is one of those human-centered words. Its first definition is a human being regarded as an individual. And this is one of the reasons why critics argue that attributing personhood to other species doesn’t make sense. So it seems that it will be difficult for other species to be granted personhood. Yet at the same time, it’s increasingly clear that considering them as mere objects is inexact.

And here I’d like to point out that considering other species as persons is the definition that anthropologists currently give of animism. And when Amazonian people and other animists say that they consider a plant or an animal as a person, I take them to mean that there’s someone home, a self rather than a thing, a sentient being with its own point of view. And even plants qualify.

Now, scientists have demonstrated that plants perceive the world in their own way. A plant may not have eyes, but it perceives light through photoreceptor proteins that cover its entire body and that are nearly identical to the ones inside our own retinas. It’s as if the plant had tiny eyes all over its body. A plant knows if you’re standing next to it and if you’re dressed in red or blue. Plants learn and remember and make decisions. They make plans. Even a blade of grass perceives the world around it, makes decisions and acts on them. This has led some philosophers to start granting personhood to plants, and other philosophers to disagree fundamentally.

And here I think Indigenous People can help philosophers think things through, regardless of whether sisters manioc and brother-in-law armadillo are bona fide persons or not, at the end of the day you still have to eat something, or rather somebody. And the animist take on this question seems to be that eating other species means knowing them, identifying with them, and trying to see the world from their perspective.

Among Amazonian people, the shortcut to seeing the perspective of other species is to ingest plant teachers. These are plants like tobacco and ayahuasca, and they tend to teach that other species have their points of view which humans gain from taking into consideration. In this view, plant-induced trances give other species the opportunity to voice their complaints and demands, which humans can then take into consideration or else risk retribution. But working with plant teachers is tricky business as we’ll be discussing this afternoon.

Photo by Veronika By | Shutterstock

In animist societies, considering other species like persons often means treating them like relatives or allies. In the Ashaninka case, beneficent plants like manioc, corn, or peach palm are called brothers or sisters because they are so good and generous, whereas species that are hunted are treated with more distance, like brothers-in-law, and plants like ayahuasca and tobacco are considered powerful and therefore potentially dangerous allies. But in all cases, using plants and animals involves recognizing the relationship one has with them.

It turns out that Ashaninka people integrate into their kinship system not only plants and animals, but also visiting anthropologists. So I can give you an example of this kind of creative kinship based on personal experience.

Back in the day I was living in an Ashaninka community. Men would introduce themselves to me and say, “So how should we treat each other, as brothers or brothers-in-law?”

And I’d say, “Well, I don’t know.” They’d say, “Well, brothers, if we want to be close and share things, and brothers-in-law, if we want to be more distant like trading partners.”

So I ended up with a couple of brothers and a whole slew of brothers-in-law, but the point is that this kind of kinship can be practiced creatively on an individual basis and in real time.

Last but not least, the Ashaninka considered some species as harmful, in which case they refer to them as having once been “human”, atziri, but not as ashaninka, “our relatives”. So poisonous snakes were not even brothers-in-law, which is not to say the contrary, of course.

People who want to move away from the anthropo-centered scene that Western cultures have upheld for centuries can start by moving away from treating plants and animals like objects, and humans too for that matter.

Human kinship with other species is real and confirmed by science, but after centuries of treating other species like objects and refusing to have relations with them, people in Western culture will need time to think this through. Here, animist societies provide a template. They may treat other species like relatives, but just like with relatives: some are close, others are more distant. Some are beneficent. Others are problematic. The nature of the relationship depends on both parties, and prudence and flexibility is required.

That’s how you treat your in-laws, right?

I don’t mean to say that people who speak in Western tongues should become animists but rather that we can learn from animist cultures. Animists use kinship categories to think about other species but in a Western context — other concepts like friend, neighbor, doctor, colleague, may be more appropriate. People will need to think about this creatively and according to their own convictions.

I initially thought to end with a consideration of respectful living in the biosphere, but now I think that “responsible” is a better word than respectful because it’s more concrete. It comes from the verb “to respond.” I think that living responsibly means living in a way that responds to the situation we’re in, and to what we now know. I think that responsible living in the biosphere means learning to see other species as beings like us, in that they have intentions, make decisions, and they know what they’re doing. They have points of view. I think that responsible living in the biosphere means learning to take the interests of other species into consideration and allowing them room to live. And I think it means learning to relate to them and to think through the kinship we have with them.

So now to get started, I call birds amigos. I consider some mushrooms as my friends. And I think of the blades of grass as sisters as I mow the lawn.

Read more from Jeremy Narby here.

Explore more Bioneers media on Intelligence in Nature.

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