When I am watching my little backyard creatures, the bees, the birds and the squirrels, I am aware that they have different kinds of brains and different levels of what is called intelligence. I watch their activities to see if I can recognize what differences there are between their thoughts and mine. I have read quite a bit about intelligence. What I know about it might be enough to pass a college final exam. I know those answers but I still don’t know what they mean. I still don’t know the important stuff about how they think and what they think about. Maybe “think” is not a word I should use.
Take the bees. In summer I often crawl into the raspberry patch to watch them up close. Their solid insect brains should be full of instincts and not much else, but when I look at them going back and forth pollinating my berries I see complex patterns that I would not think of as instinct. If Karl von Frisch is to be believed, they have a language expressed by dance steps. These solid brains can communicate to each other with a little tango. “Hey girls I found a bunch of good pollen over there, Ole!”
Communication seems to be something more than instinct to me. However, I don’t know what “instinct” means. Maybe it is another word that I should not use. Does it mean that they do not learn? I don’t think so (there I go using that word again).
Birds have much the same story, a solid, reptile brain that deals in instinct. When I go out to fill up the bird feeder all the birds fly away in a panic. I have been doing this every day for many years. You would think that they would remember that I am bringing food to them and that I have never injured a single bird since I was a little kid with a BB gun.
However if I jump in the truck and drive to the mountain I will find the Gray Jays, known to the loggers and other mountain men as Camp Robbers. They are absolutely fearless around humans. The first time I saw one I was a young man skiing cross country alone, taking some time to eat a sandwich. The rascal landed on the ski pole I had planted in the snow. When I offered a crumb he dropped down and landed on my hand. He took the crumb and then with a quick faint he picked up a larger chunk of my sandwich and flew away.
Since then I have sometimes found myself sitting in the snow with my lunch and with camp robbers on my wool cap, on my two ski poles and on my shoulders, all looking hungrily at the sandwich.
If it is instinct, how is it possible that the Blue Jays run away from me and their close cousins the Gray Jays crowd around me as close as they can get. I have a picture of one gray jay perched on my forefinger taking a crumb from my lips. Neither these blue or gray jays have ever seen me before. Is it instinct or what?
The Whale Bacchanalia
OK we are ready to talk about the holy grail, the double-lobe spongy brains of mammals like me. I should at least know more about my own intelligence, my own thoughts, but I don’t. I am not a good example since I have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and my brain is not working properly. Let’s talk about a whale that I know.
Almost every year we go down to Baja California in February to see the Gray whales. All the Grays in the Pacific and the Arctic oceans are there at that time of the year. This is where half the females are having their babies and the other half of the females are there to party and get pregnant. The bay at Guerrero Negro will have between 2000 and 3000 gray whales at that time.
The first time I was there we hired a boat with a local fisherman to take us out to see the whales. I don’t remember what I expected but I will always remember what I got.
The pangero took us out and killed the outboard engine, leaving us to float around in a little circle. It is against Mexican law to go within a hundred meters of a whale on the surface. However it is not illegal for these whales to come to you.
Incredibly the mothers bring out their new babies to show them off to the humans. Like any mother they are clearly proud of their offspring.
The first time it happened to me, mama came up beside our little boat. The pangero yelled at us to “Grat, Grat” meaning that we should scratch mama, which we did. It was like scratching a truck tire. Then this thirty foot long whale rolled over like a puppy so we could scratch her belly. Then she brought her baby over so it too could be scratched and petted. I looked at Mama while this was going on and I saw her eyes fixed on me.
We all know that whales are not fish, but they live in the sea and apparently I had thought of them as a big fish. No more, not after Mama fixed her eyes on mine. I saw through to the intelligence in her huge mammal brain. She was sizing me up and had apparently decided that I would not hurt her baby. Her eyes were smiling. It was a life changing event for me. I found an animal that seemed smarter than me.
Later, reading the history of this place I found that in the days of whaling there was an armada of whalers who came into this bay and killed so many whales that the bay was red with whale blood. The next year when the whalers came again the whales had a plan. They rammed the wooden whaleboats as they arrived and sunk them. Then they killed all the men fumbling around in the water. That ended the whaling in that bay.
Those were the same whales who brought out their newborns so I could scratch their bellies and see how nice they were.