If Nietzsche Were A Narwhal by Justin Gregg

Reviewed by E. B. Heath

Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil.

Nietzsche, F. W. (1894)

As far as this reader is concerned Justin Gregg is preaching to the choir in his conviction that cognition and the subjective experience of animals are much the same as humans, albeit not as complex.  He is not alone in this; scientists and philosophers are equally convinced and have given testimony in an official document – the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which states that:  … the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.  In If Nietzsche Were A Narwhal Gregg provides evidence detailing intriguing research.

The title and cover artwork, of course, grabs attention, although not employed merely for affect as philosophy and biology are dove-tailed throughout.  Nietzschean quotes head up most chapters followed by comparisons between human and animal behaviour, the philosophy usefully illustrates the detrimental outcomes of human intelligence given that Nietzschean texts were refashioned to justify the atrocities of the Nazi regime.  If Nietzsche had been born a narwhal, the world might never have had to endure the horrors of the Second World War or the holocaust—events that, through no fault of his own, Nietzsche helped create.  No one could argue that our human exceptionalism has not always produced constructive outcomes, particularly, as Gregg points out, there is an almost a ten per cent chance that we will be the cause of our own demise by the end of this century.  So, not that intelligent!

Oddly, intelligence is hard to define, there seems to be a dearth of agreement when discussing AI (Artificial Intelligence), as Gregg archly points out: There is, and never will be, an agreement as to what intelligence is for an entire field of science focused exclusively on creating it.  Gregg refers to cognition rather than intelligence when making comparisons between humans and animals.  He details experimental research that adequately shows similarities between humans, birds, animals and even insects within themes of: theory of mind, honesty/lying, death wisdom, morality, consciousness/self- awareness and the shared pleasure of getting drunk.  He goes on to discuss the cause of our demise – prognostic myopia – the inability to care about the future, not acting on reports forecasting our impending extinction, particularly climate change.  All of the above gives readers insightful access to human and other animal minds, which hopefully, results in respect and kindness towards all animals.  However, lacking here is a separation between cognitive intelligence and emotional intelligence, there is much we could learn from the domestic dog concerning the latter and I had hoped Gregg might have provided some research on this.

As the above indicates there is much to digest.  Fascinating data about birds that deceive predators by pretending to be injured, deception is common amongst us all apparently.  How tools are employed across the animal kingdom.  Grieving apes and dolphins made interesting reading, although elephants regularly revisiting dead relatives’ bones is not mentioned.

Gregg is among a few current authors questioning moral positions.  Distinct from norms, which act to guide rules of social behaviour, morals put a value on behaviour guided by an ideology that may, or may not, be shared by everyone.

Human moral reasoning often leads to more death, violence, and destruction than we find in the normative behavior of nonhuman animals. Which is why human morality, as I will argue, kind of sucks.  He illustrates his case with examples of homosexuality in the animal world, apparently reasonably common, but not penalised, given that in neither domain it threatens procreation of the species.

Gregg discusses a most germane topic under the heading of Prognostic Myopia, which is the incapacity to care about the future.  He refers, of course, to inaction on climate change, despite evidence that it will lead to our destruction.  He spends perhaps too much time ‘lawn bashing’, clearly a pet hate, nevertheless it illustrates how our unevolved brains are primed to deal only with immediate problems while maintaining the status quo.  That, and much else here, deserves consideration.

If Nietzsche Were A Narwhal provides scientific evidence that animals experience the world in every way much like humans.  In understanding this, attitudes of caring for, rather than dominion over animals, might even spill over into human relationships.

If Nietzsche Were A Narwhal

By Justin Gregg


Hachette Australia


ISBN: 978 139971 250 7

$32.99; 308pp


ISBN: 978 139971 249 1



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