Acknowledging Intelligence: Photographer vs Elk

In my recent post on eagerness to see a different point of view, I described my eagerness to observe animals as something more like humans in terms of intelligence.

Recently, I saw this video about a photographer being confronted up and personal by an elk.    I was led to the video from various expectations of what was about to happen when wildlife confronts an unprepared human.   The prompting was either that the man was foolish to put himself into that position, that he had trespassed on the elk’s territory, or that he was breaking some rule about interacting with wildlife.   In other words, all of the expectations assumed that humans should observe different rules when it comes to wildlife than when it comes to other humans.

The video would be disappointing if one was expecting some dramatic ending.    But the ending is far more interesting than some “fail” event.   The elk was very curious to know what was in the backpack.

Replay that video only now imagine replacing the elk with a human avatar.   Consider the photographer as SUV transported into the wilderness of the Amazon and encountering a lone human scout of a tribe that has had no exposure to modern life.   The scout has no common language with the photographer.

From the very start the two have very real human ideas.   The photographer wants to get some great photos.   The scout wants to know what is in the bag.   They can’t talk to each other.

The scout is trying to tell the photographer, “Move away from that bag”, or  “Let me see that bag”.   Imagine even that the scout is a border enforcement agent confronting a hapless traveler who does not know the language.   The border agent is not going to give up until he sees the bag so he’ll try a variety of approaches to communicate.    Imagine again the scout being a more primitive form of a border control agent.

On the other hand the photographer doesn’t get the message but instead is full of excitement about the opportunity for close-up photographs of a rarely spotted aboriginal.   He takes advantage of the opportunity.

The scout may try various means of body language to communicate the idea of moving away from the bag.   He has no intention of physical confrontation or inflicting harm.   He only wants to see what is in the bag.

He may come close and gently make bodily contact.   He may try to annoy the photographer by knocking off the hat.  Later he may act out threatening moves but at a safe distance.  He is trying to communicate both that he means no harm to the photographer and that he is serious about wanting to know what is in the bag.

In short, the entire interaction between elk and human could have played out very much the same way between two intelligent humans who didn’t have a shared language or culture.

Even though I had to see the end of the video and then think about it a while to realize something intelligent might have been going on, I was first amazed at how gentle the elk was to the sitting human.    The actions demonstrated a deliberate assertion of some intent, but they were delivered slowly and peacefully.    That alone was not what one would expect from a wild animal protecting his territory.    That behavior is what one would expect perhaps from a domesticated animal or even a pet.      

But it is also what one may expect from an encounter with another human.   Even though there is no shared culture or language, the photographer’s opponent acknowledged that the photographer was intelligent, respected that photographer, and reasoned that the photographer could receive a communication of an idea.    

Eventually, the elk’s message was received as intended.   The photographer moved away from the bag allowing the elk to check it out.    That is goes back to my definition of intelligence of having an idea, communicating it to another being, and getting confirmation that the other being received the idea just as it was intended.

The entire episode seems to be an intelligent dialog about as intelligent as you can expect from another human in a similar disparate circumstances.

If we can’t see intelligence that surrounds is nonhuman forms, it is no wonder why we’ll also think we are alone in the universe.   The joke is on us.

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