Animals understand life better than humans

Blocked out: 95% of all animal species are smaller than the human thumb.

Is it okay to be wilfully ignorant? A new study of the brain shows that it is programmed to ignore upsetting and inconvenient truths, leaving human beings living in a “reality bubble”.

As evening falls on the African continent, a family gathers to watch the sunset. They greet each other with enthusiastic cries, join hands, and sit down on the side of a hill. There they remain, gazing at the wonderful light that fills the sky and gradually fades. But the family does not consist of human beings – it consists of chimpanzees.

This is one of the extraordinary scenes evoked by Ziya Tong in her new book, The Reality Bubble. What she wants us to recognise is that there are other intelligent and sensitive creatures on Earth, and the planet does not exist simply for our convenience.

To her, the chimpanzees’ behaviour demonstrates that “we are not the only problem-solvers, not the only communicators, and not the only animals capable of love or the appreciation of beauty”.

But she adds, “The truth is their experience is completely unknowable to us […]. Even our closest evolutionary relative might see and perceive a world completely different from our own.”

In other words, while we assume that we have a clearer understanding of the planet than our fellow creatures – and are, therefore, entitled to treat them as inferiors – we could be quite wrong.

The book brims with extraordinary facts. It mentions beetles that navigate by the Milky Way; pigeons that can tell a painting by Picasso from one by Monet; dolphins that can hear an unborn child; a chimpanzee with a photographic memory.

In fact, Tong argues, we live in a state of wilful ignorance: our brains are programmed to shut down information that upsets us. This creates “the reality bubble”, a psychological term she defines as “a human ability to create a perception of reality in order to carry on with life as it is known”.

On one level, this means blocking out evidence that we are just one species among millions: “95% of all animal species are smaller than the human thumb […]; 50% of life on Earth is ‘invisible’ yet responsible for making the planet habitable.”

On another level, it means ignoring the cruelty of the food industry and the damage that we are doing to the environment. According to one calculation, if everyone on Earth ate like the average American, the planet would have run out of fresh water 15 years ago.

Is it okay to be wilfully ignorant?

Reality check

No, of course not. Humans have put themselves at the centre of the Universe and assumed that they can treat the Earth’s animals and natural resources as they please. If we bore in mind that all animals have feelings, we would treat them with much more respect. And if we thought about how wasteful we are, the environment would be in a much better state.

That’s naive, others argue. Every species is focused on its own particular way of surviving, and therefore lives in its own bubble. As humans, we have quite enough problems in our daily lives: if we worried about everything else on Earth, we would go mad. As for animals, they have no pity for the creatures they eat. Why should we?

You Decide

  1. What is the most intelligent animal you have ever met?
  2. Does breeding an animal give you the right to eat it?

Activities

  1. Do a painting of a pigeon in the style of either Picasso or Monet.
  2. Write a one-act play about a family of chimpanzees trying to decide whether to adopt a human baby.

Some People Say...

“To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910), American author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Humans cannot be considered distinct from the outside world. Around half the matter that makes up our bodies originated in another galaxy, and we are part of what Tong calls “a constant dance of interchanging particles”. Neutrinos (tiny particles generated by the Sun’s nuclear fusion) pass through our bodies every second: we are not as solid as we like to think.
What do we not know?
Whether humanity as a whole can be held responsible for the Earth’s problems. The decisions that most affect the planet are made by a few very powerful people: President Trump’s disregard for the environment is a case in point. Most people are well-intentioned, but Tong argues that their leaders deliberately keep them in the dark, so that they seldom stop to consider where their food comes from, or the effect of the energy they use, and the waste they create.

Word Watch

Relative
DNA comparisons have proved that chimpanzees are the animals most like humans. They are thought to have become distinct from us 6 million years ago.
Milky Way
The galaxy that contains our solar system. To the naked eye, the stars that make it up appear as a hazy band of light; the first person to see them individually was the 17th-Century astronomer Galileo.
Picasso
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is regarded as the greatest artist of the 20th Century. Three of his paintings have sold for more than $100 million (£82m).
Monet
Claude Monet (1840-1926) was a French Impressionist best known for his paintings of water lilies. After an operation to improve his sight, he repainted some of them to make them bluer.
Photographic memory
The ability to remember something in great detail after only seeing it once. It is most common in young children; very few adults possess it.

Subjects

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