I have been reading Justin Gregg’s If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity. Gregg is an expert on animal intelligence, especially dolphins, and he has a two-part thesis. First, animals are intelligent, particularly if you define intelligence as the ability to survive and prosper as a species. Second, human beings are intelligent too—in fact, we excel at invention, deductive reasoning, and altering our environment—but, partly because of this inventiveness, we make drastic changes in our world without focusing on long-term consequences. This, Gregg explains, is called “prognostic myopia,” and it is a serious flaw; it could result in the extinction of our species; it already has caused the extinction of many other species.
Why do we have this flaw? Gregg’s exposition is complex, but simply put, thinking about the long-term future doesn’t engage us emotionally. If our daughter’s life is threatened, he says, we jump in and do everything possible to save her. But if our as yet unborn great-great-granddaughter’s life is threatened—as it very well may be, by climate change or other manmade threats—it is very hard for us to put much energy into even thinking about it, much less doing something about it. Animals don’t think far ahead either, but they don’t have the kind of intelligence we do. Their efforts toward day-to-day survival have a relatively small impact compared to ours.
Prognostic myopia: I have thought about and written about this quality for years, but never knew there was a name for it. In reading Gregg’s book, I learned that environmental activist Greta Thunberg—the Swedish teenager who has made such a splash in recent years with her impassioned pleas for grownups to take climate change seriously—acknowledges her Asperger’s syndrome, a mild kind of autistic disorder. Greta has explained that probably because of Asperger’s, she is able to focus on this existential threat and stay focused on it in a way that neurotypical people cannot. She is like the seers or soothsayers of old; she has a kind of second sight.
We are all learning that people on the autistic spectrum can be gifted. The 1988 movie Rain Man, although a fictional and problematic portrayal performed by a non-autistic actor, gave us one of the first popular examples of autistic giftedness. In real life, highly successful entrepreneurs, founders of large companies, and inventors of new technologies often have the kind of second sight that Greta Thunberg speaks of. I think of leaders of ancient civilizations who consulted oracles before launching any major enterprise; the Delphic oracle of ancient Greece is one such example. In those old days, it was thought that the great changes that people experienced—the change in the season, bolts of thunder and lightning, floods and famine—were the work of the gods, beings more powerful than any mere human to which we must supplicate and propitiate.
Perhaps that is why Gregg used Nietzsche’s writings as examples of prophecy; maybe Nietzsche was on the spectrum too. We no longer fear sky or earth gods. Perhaps that is what Nietzsche meant by his famous dictum, “God is dead.” We think we have become more powerful than the gods now and can wreak our will with impunity.
It seems that Greta Thunberg has faded from the headlines. She gave a big speech at the United Nations, and for a prescient moment, she was heard. But her voice is now just one of many millions competing for their social media moment. Greta, incidentally, abjures social media, as well as fame and trendiness. She keeps her focus on the problem. In contrast, there are over a billion people posting on TikTok every day, each of them with an opinion. Talk about myopia! I have tried scrolling through TikTok and its competitor, YouTube shorts. Both are hypnotic, addictive, and, in my humble opinion, completely useless except as a window into the infinite distractions that are put forward by those who want to keep our prognostic myopia front and center. After one of these scrolling sessions, I have to lie down and rest, my brain is so full of stimulating nonsense.
What can we do about our prognostic myopia? Can we do anything? Gregg says we can, we can force ourselves to care deeply about the fate of our great-great-granddaughter. But it takes enormous effort, it doesn’t come naturally. I suppose the first step, as with any disorder, is to acknowledge that we have it, and give it a name, which Gregg has done.
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