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.”

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, our brains are programmed to shut down information that upsets us. This creates “the reality bubble”, a term she defines as “a human ability to create a perception of reality in order to carry on with life as it is known”.

Is it okay to be wilfully ignorant?

Reality check

No, of course not. If we considered that all animals have feelings, we would treat them with much more respect.

That’s naive, others argue. As humans, we have quite enough problems in our daily lives: if we worried about everything else on Earth, we would go mad.

You Decide

  1. What is the most intelligent animal you have ever met?

Activities

  1. 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 thought of as separate 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 lack of concern 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 rarely stop to think 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.
Naive
Showing a lack of experience, wisdom, or judgement.

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