My belief in science, animal intelligence and our orature

Artificial Intelligence

Stories of growing human scientific interest in animal or creature intelligence, even as we cherish artificial intelligence (AI) at the other extreme, intrigued me. Indeed, we can predict that a triangular meeting of intelligence, the animal, the human and the artificial, is imminent, if not already in progress. 

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I recently came across a cynical utterance to the effect that human beings should stop studying animal intelligence. They should concentrate instead on studying human stupidity. What do you think?

Maybe the first answer to that is that we are not stupid, and no precious time should be wasted on proving the opposite.

This, however, is not to deny the fact that many of the things we humans do often defy all rational explanations. More importantly, though, we know that humans will pursue and probe whatever catches their fancy, regardless of its relevance or profit to them.

A good example is space exploration. The quantity and quality of human energy, expertise and effort invested in probing the mysteries of the astral and cosmic world, especially in these two centuries, the 20th and 21st, is astounding. 

Add to that the huge amounts of money and other material resources poured into those adventures, and the mind boggles.

Many sensible and practical-minded people keep pointing out to us that even a fraction of the resources that have been pumped into space adventures would be enough to eradicate poverty from the face of our planet. But tell that to NASA and her counterparts and see if they will listen. 

The irony anyway is that there is still a tremendous lot that we do not know about this earth of ours and the seas that surround it.

Artificial intelligence

Anyway, stories of growing human scientific interest in animal or creature intelligence, even as we cherish artificial intelligence (AI) at the other extreme, intrigued me. Indeed, we can predict that a triangular meeting of intelligence, the animal, the human and the artificial, is imminent, if not already in progress. 

Imagine, for example, that, using our human “brains”, we set out to observe, collect and analyse data related to animal behaviour and supposed intelligence.

This is our conventional empirical scientific method. But it is almost inevitable that in the process of conducting such research, we will turn to artificial intelligence (cyber tools) to enhance our processes. 

The cyber capability will help us to collect, store, analyse and rapidly recall data faster and more accurately than ever before.

Artificial intelligence will also help us to model, simulate and predict scenarios grounded in our research findings. “Chimpanzee Queen” Dr Jane Goodall, who turns 90 next year, even as I turn 80, observed chimpanzees in Gumbo Stream National Park in Tanzania as they fashioned sticks to thrust into termite nests in order to trap the dudus for their consumption. 

Her findings led to the knocking down of the long-held assumption that humans were the only tool-making species.

But it took years for her findings to be propagated and accepted because of the limitedness of both data collection and communication technology in those distant 1960s when Goodall was making her historic discoveries. 

Today, in our highly interconnected world, observations and discoveries are globally shared and discussed within hours, if not minutes of their being made.

There, you have it. Do I have to make a “Soyinkaesque” tigritude declaration that I am an enthusiastic believer in an admirer of modern science, including computer science and its resultant artificial intelligence (AI)? You may remember that, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, some “realists” were saying that it would take at least 10 years to develop an effective vaccine against it.

Some of us “hotheads”, however, told you that we would have a vaccine in far, far less time than that. Now we can loudly and gladly crow that we were right. Our predictions, however, were based on not only our irrepressible optimism, and our burning desire to comfort you in those gloomy days. Equally importantly, especially in my case, they sprang from our deep and firm belief and trust in contemporary science, including medical science.

The times I appear to vociferate against “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), my only beef is with those narrow-minded planners of ours who think that we can run the world on science alone. 

An H-2A rocket carrying the Hope Probe known as "Al-Amal" in Arabic to explore Mars

In this handout photograph taken and released on July 20, 2020, by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries an H-2A rocket carrying the Hope Probe known as "Al-Amal" in Arabic to explore Mars, blasts off from Tanegashima Space Centre in southwestern Japan.

Photo credit: AFP

Humanity

This irks me particularly when it is posited against and at the expense of the Humanities.

Our argument is that you cannot run a viable human community without those skills, like language, ethics, theology and art, that make us human.

They distinguish us from the machines of science on the one hand and the instincts of the animal world on the other. But I should guard against making sweeping statements about the animals since they are the focus of our ruminations (chewing the cud) today.

Many scientists are closely observing, documenting and analysing patterns of animal behaviour in attempts to get scientifically supported answers to such questions as whether animals have the capacity for reflection, deductive “thinking “, self-awareness and situational adaptation. As we said earlier, with all the scientific tools and skills available to us, we should be able to come up with enlightening discoveries.

Yet this is not a new interest. Folk wisdom has always intuited and respected the supra physical powers and potential of creatures. 

Indeed, in our folklore and orature, animals and other creatures are routinely ascribed to “human” qualities and roles. They talk, woo and marry, negotiate deals and contracts and attend political rallies.

The songs of the birds and the roars and barks of the animals are decoded in human language. Many of us live so close to the animal world that we adopt them as our relatives. I, for example, am related to the antelope, which is the symbol of my lineage.

Such folk beliefs and practices may be dismissed as mere figments of the imagination. Our detractors dismiss them as primitive superstitions. But often there are long and complex histories behind them, and consigning them to the dustbins of our ignorant arrogance may not be the wisest course of action.

Someone has observed that we human beings are part of nature, just like the rest of the flora and fauna and the inorganic features around us. Disadvantaging or destroying any of these is destroying nature, and destroying nature is destroying ourselves. Greed, recklessness and ignorance are the main forces that drive us to degrade and destroy nature, and eventually ourselves.

So, the close interest, scientific and creative, in animals and other phenomena of nature is a welcome contribution to our survival and our future. I can predict that scientific research will probably confirm many of the folk insights that have long guided our relationship with our fellow creatures.

Who, by the way, is your closest animal relative?

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected] 
 

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