Book review of Ways of Being Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence by James Bridle

Book review of Ways of Being Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence by James Bridle


If you plan to read James Bridle’s “Ways of Being”– and I can’t recommend it highly enough – you might want to consider forming a support group first. The ideas in this book are so grand, so fascinating, and yes, so foreign, you’re going to need people to talk about them. Get your people on speed dial numbers, ready to go. And make sure you set aside enough time to read. You probably won’t read this book once. You will want to read it several times. This book will stretch you.

Bridle’s opening question to us is: what does it mean to be intelligent? There are many qualities we could mention to describe intelligence: the capacity for logic, reasoning and understanding; the ability to plan; Troubleshooting; emotional understanding; creativity. But one of the main definitions of intelligence is: what people do. When we talk about something that is intelligent, we usually mean something that works on the same level and in the same way that we do. We tend to think that humans are the sole possessors of intelligence. It is what separates us from “lower” beings.

That is the first hurdle to overcome. Bridle is steadily arguing that what you thought about intelligence may not be quite right, and Who what you thought was intelligent may not be right either. No, we’re not talking about that coworker who isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. We’re not talking about people at all. Bridle wants us to take animal intelligence into account. From plants. From machinery.

To do this, we must be open to the idea of ​​a “more than human world.” This is a world in which we do not separate ourselves from nature. We don’t see the world as a world full of lesser beings. Bridle tells us: “The world is made up of subjects, not objects. Eachthing is really anyaand all those beings have their own agency, points of view, and life forms.”

We are introduced to the concept of “umwelt”.” It comes from the 20th-century German biologist Jakob von Uexküll. The word translates to “environment” or “environment,” but it refers to “the particular perspective of a particular organism: its internal model of the world, composed of its knowledge and perceptions.”

Bridle gives us the example of a parasitic tick. The tick’s umwelt is concerned with three factors: the smell of butyric acid, which indicates to the tick that there is an animal nearby to eat; a temperature of 98.6 degrees, which indicates the presence of warm blood; and mammalian hair, which the tick must navigate to reach its meal. These three specific things make up the tick’s universe.

Bridle says: “Critical is that an organism creates its own surroundings, but also constantly reshapes it in its encounter with the world. . . . Everything is unique and tangled up. Of course, in a world that is more than human, it is not only organisms that surroundings — everything works.”

So the tick’s world revolves around those three things, and it acts accordingly. Does that make it intelligent? Rather, it depends on the metric you use to measure intelligence.

People are so people-oriented, we don’t always ask the right questions. A classic intelligence test is to see if a subject can solve a problem with the help of a tool. A tempting piece of food can be tied to a string and placed just out of an animal’s reach. By pulling the string and pulling the food towards itself, the animal demonstrates the ability to recognize a problem, think about it, make a plan and carry it out. The animal has proven its intelligence.

Researchers have been playing this game with chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans for decades. But early tests on gibbons, another primate, failed miserably. The gibbons made no effort to retrieve the food. So… gibbons are stupid? Not exactly. Gibbons are trees. They live in trees. To make climbing and swinging easier, gibbons have elongated fingers. This makes it more difficult for them to pick up objects that are on flat surfaces. Dragging food on a string across the ground is not a natural gibbon scenario. Researchers tried again. This time they hung the food from the ceiling with string. Only then did the gibbons recognize a known problem — finding food in the trees where they live — and they tugged at the strings to retrieve the food. The gibbons didn’t suddenly become intelligent. The original test was missing what makes them smart.

Bridle tells us plainly: “Intelligence . . . is not something to be tested, but something to be recognized, in all the many forms it takes. The task is to figure out how to become aware of it, deal with it, make it manifest. This process is itself one of entanglement, of opening ourselves to forms of communication and interaction with the totality of the more-than-human world. . . . It involves changing ourselves and our own attitudes and behaviors, rather than changing the circumstances of our non-human communicants.”

Bridle will tell you that plants have an umwelt of themselves. Plus, plants can hear, says the author. You read that right. Bridle will tell you that plants can remember things too. I can’t do justice to the explanation of the book in this short review, but trust me, you will believe it. You’ll also believe what Bridle has to say about machines and artificial intelligence.

You soon come to understand, as Bridle argues, “everything is intelligent and therefore – along with many other reasons – it deserves our care and conscious attention.” According to the author, intelligence is relational and all organisms are interconnected. We share this world. You, me, your dog, draw. Bridle writes, “What matters is in relationships rather than things – between us, rather than within us. … Intelligence is an active process, not just a mental capacity. By rethinking intelligence and the forms in which it appears in other beings, we will begin to break down some of the barriers and false hierarchies that separate us from other species and the world.”

In this book, Bridle has created a new way of thinking about our world, about being. How would we live our lives and change our world if we embraced this thinking? If we didn’t put ourselves first? Read this important book. Read it twice. Talk about it. Tell everyone you know.

Brenna Maloney is an editor for the National Geographic Society and author of “Buzzkill: A wild walk through the strange and endangered world of insects”, which will be published in October.

Animals, Plants, Machines: The Quest for a Planetary Intelligence

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 364 pp. $30

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