Book review: If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal

I recently read Justin Gregg’s If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity. As humans, we tend to assume that our intelligence sets us apart and that our exceptional cognitive abilities are good. There’s no doubt that we’re exceptional, but it’s not clear that we’re good. As Gregg wrote:

Our many intellectual accomplishments are currently on track to produce our own extinction, which is exactly how evolution gets rid of adaptations that suck.

Unique among Earth’s animals, humans have bent our environment to our will. This, of course, has resulted in some undesirable side effects. Despite all of our supposed advancement, we are biologically predisposed to prioritize immediate needs over long-term needs. We get benefit from burning fossil fuels now and assume that we’ll be able to deal with the long-term impacts later. But will we?

Gregg studies animal cognition, so this book is steeped in facts. Indeed, the reader will probably learn more about animals than people. And after reaching the end, the reader may find it’s hard to disagree with Gregg’s assertion that Nietzche — and the rest of the species — would have been happier as a narwhal.

Evolution has many dead ends. It could be that what makes us special actually makes us less happy. Humans have a relatively short time on Earth, so it’s folly to assume that our unique adaptations aren’t maladaptive. It reminds me of the joke where an angel is talking to God about creating humans and says “you’ve ruined a perfectly good monkey. Look, it has anxiety!”

I didn’t come away from this book convinced that human cognition is a bad thing on balance. But as a philosophical starting point, I see a case for Gregg’s argument that “human intelligence may just be the stupidest thing that ever happened.”