The Intelligence of Man and of Beast

August 29th, 2013


Every day, hundreds of millions of chickens are held in small cages with no mobility. When many of us are confronted with the realities of factory farming, we rely on the rationalization that these animals are for our consumption, and aren’t intelligent enough to understand or feel what is happening to them anyway. This is not true, however; animals have a meaningful intelligence of their own.

Some now argue that chickens are smarter than 4-year-olds. Chickens can exhibit “behavioral flexibility,” can delay gratification, and demonstrate self-control. Jane Goodall has argued that since apes share up to almost 99 percent of the same DNA with humans, we must treat them better. She shows that they are capable of compassion, communication, altruism, calculation, and consciousness: “There is no sharp line dividing us from the chimpanzee or from any of the great apes.”

Scholars have shown how chimps are like us, dolphins are creative, elephants have self-awareness, cephalopods have big brains, pigs are “wise,” and squirrels sometimes behave deceptively. In the Jewish tradition, Onkelos famously translates “a living soul” as “a talking spirit” (Genesis 2:7), suggesting that language is the defining human characteristic. The female gorilla “Koko” can make signs for about 1,000 words and can understand around 2,000 English spoken words. If an animal can feel, think, communicate, and love, how different can she be from us?

Yet today, we continue to maltreat these animals and trivialize their lives through destroying their habitats, capturing them, and using them in experiments. Populations of wild chimpanzees have dropped by about 65 percent over the last few decades; fewer than 300,000 are left in the world today. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has released its Red List of the world’s most threatened plants and animals.

Humans are created “b’tzelem Elokim” (in the image of G-d), and in some way that makes us distinct from the animal world. Perhaps we presume animals cannot engage in transcendence and immanence that the human soul is capable of, but when it comes to all other human faculties (thought, feeling, consciousness, relationships, etc.), scholars are showing more and more that animals have similar capabilities (albeit to a different or lesser degree). As spiritual beings, we must see our humanity as distinct from the animal kingdom, but we also dare not dismiss that humans are a part of the animal continuum and we too must respect the animal world of which we are a significant, but still only one, part.

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