Chapter Six: Intelligence, Personality, Personhood, Being, and some genuine Woo-Woo.
Snow had fallen overnight, more than a foot. It seemed much deeper than that to me, but I couldn’t have explained why. The visual softening of the Sussex downs? The resemblance to snowfalls in Northern British Columbia, which were often heavier and the cold more extreme? The important fact was that there had been enough snow to short-circuit the electric fences that separated the farm’s main fields, which were not fences in the conventional sense but rather perimeter strands of electrified wire about sixteen inches from the ground with a current strong enough to shock a transgressing animal without harming it.
As electric fencing systems go today, it was rudimentary. This was 1962, well before the advent of casual computerization, and Ronald Surry, not an electrical engineer but a resourceful man with a knowledge of military trip-wire alarms, had jury-rigged it as an adjunct to conventional fencing, which he then allowed, out of overconfidence or the sloth of having too much to do, to fall into disrepair. At the time, I couldn’t see why a hard rain wouldn’t also short-circuit such a system, since the insulators that kept the strands of wire isolated were unprotected from the elements and barely functional to begin with. I considered asking Ronald about this, but I didn’t, not wanting to appear to question his competence.
It’s likely that the answer was complicated beyond what either of us had the leisure or inclination to think through: that the fences short-circuited often when it was wet, but that pigs have brains enough to stay out of the rain, and would choose the comfort of the shelter to testing an electric fence during a downpour. But a heavy snowfall? Here was novelty from the norms of both the farm and the world as it operated in East Sussex, and this is where porcine intelligence might have led the Landrace boar to do something unusual. Did this boar waken from a dream to venture out into the snowy night air, apprehend the beauty of the event along with its novelty, and then wander, lonely as a cloud and undeterred by mild electrical shocks, into the adjoining field? And only then, when his senses detected another male, return to the asshole male behavior that was instinctive to him?
Maybe so, and that’s a fanciful notion that leads, well, nowhere. But since I’m trying to get at serious matters by unconventional means, what does it hint at?
First of all, it suggests that pigs, including boars, even when their brains are completely clouded with testosterone, are intelligent. The common view is that pigs are more intelligent than dogs, but slightly less intelligent than the higher apes. Most other primates and a few rodents also have opposed thumbs with which to lead dexterity to deliberate manipulation, but they’re still dumber than pigs and dogs.
My sense of both pigs and dogs is that their intelligence is fundamentally different from that of opposed-thumb primates. Pigs, like dogs, don’t possess sufficient biomechanical sophistication to allow them to easily manipulate their physical environments, and so their intelligence is more closely tied to their social abilities and their appetites—food and otherwise.
The intelligence of dogs is different again from that of pigs. Canine intelligence is hierarchical, which is to say, dogs spend quite a lot of their brainpower determining how to cooperate with others, and where they are in the hierarchy of their pack, which, almost uniquely, they select without much regard to species. My dog, a border collie/Labrador retriever cross, is unusually intelligent as dogs go. He has a vocabulary in excess of sixty words, he’s skilled at predicting human moods and behaviors, and he’s literally never been hurt by anyone. But, despite that, he avoids situations where he is at eye level with me, and will not lie on the bed unless commanded to, and then, only with his head facing the foot of the bed. This is because he’s accepted me as his alpha, and he treats other humans—along with dogs and one or two cats, quite differently, according to where he has put them in the hierarchy of his mental pack. Hierarchy, along with the co-operation it enables, is what all dogs think about, and my dog’s slightly odd concept of “pack” is the proof that canine hierarchies aren’t always rigidly linear, and they’re not at all simple. Other proofs abound—ask any dog owner.
Pigs, by contrast, aren’t very interested in interspecies hierarchy or cooperation, and still less in authority. Among themselves they will establish nominal pecking orders so they don’t spend all day bumping into one another at the food trough. But they will sleep in an undifferentiated pile, and eat whenever and whatever they please. If you let them, they would sleep next to you, their heads on the pillow beside you, snoring into your face. They would eat your food, and they would eat it, if they were physically capable, sitting in a chair beside you with linen napkins, napkin rings and the Full Monty on cutlery—and they’d chat you up over dinner (okay, maybe that’s taking it too far because pigs can’t talk and really wouldn’t, if they could talk, have much to talk about with us beyond the quality of the food or to lodge existential complaints about the scarcity of ventilation openings in the body suits nature has stuck them with).
That the pigs on Great Crouchs Farm had distinct personalities was among the first things I recognized after I arrived. Ronald, maybe because of the milder misanthropy that accompanied his misandry, wasn’t reluctant to grant identity to individual pigs. He had pigs he was fond of, others he didn’t like, and his affections didn’t depend on corporate considerations like a sow’s abilities to produce piglets for profit, although any sow that crushed or smothered one of her piglets in the farrowing sheds—something that occurred fairly regularly—was a factor in his affections. “Loutish beast”, he would sneer whenever he found that a sow had rolled on one of her newborn, and his contempt would be palpable.
My own sense of this was kinder. When you weigh three hundred pounds, don’t see particularly well and have nine to thirteen very small babies running around you in an enclosed space, not stepping or rolling on the little buggers is an accomplishment. But I eventually discovered that sows that accidentally killed one of their newborns frequently did in more, and that they sometimes developed a taste for the ones they’d killed. One sow that devoured five of her newborns in a single night got herself sent to the Hunt, and earned her bloodline an addendum to its dossier as possibly having cannibalistic urges, which was Ronald’s way of reminding himself that her and her relatives’ offspring, whatever the size of their hams or length of their bacon-yielding flanks shouldn’t be kept in the future as gilts.
Ronald practiced this sort of eugenics with a casualness that made me wonder how firm that line that had then just recently been drawn at the boundaries of the human community was, and what it was based on. Since the line had moved before, why couldn’t it move again?
I was wondering, I guess, if pigs might be “persons.” It still seems like a good question.
To begin to answer this, I have to make up my own definition of a person, because the dictionaries are either solipsistic (a person is a being with the attributes of personhood); unhelpfully legalistic, blah, blah; or clandestinely argumentative and ideological in the current post-structuralist moral spirit of the universities. So I’m going to suggest that a “person” is any being that possesses two essential attributes. One is consciousness of self, which is to say, that he or she is self-aware and can distinguish their individuality from the world around it. They don’t have to make a career out of doing this the way some human beings do, they just have to be able to do it once in a while as a ground for cognition. The other is that their consciousness of self is capable of morphing directly into curiosity about that which is not her or himself. In some ideal reality I’d add the capacity for free speculation as a third attribute, but since hard data on how common this ability is, even within the human species, is rare and impossible to secure empirically, (or is determined by how hungry the individual happens to be), I’ll leave it off the list.
Within my definition pigs are persons, along with most dogs and a number of other non-human animals and most, but not all, human beings. (I think it’s a fair argument to say that a sizeable part of the human community is watching television, or is obsessed with personifying—or smashing—the current Zeitgeist—each of which are significantly inferior states of being because they all exist without curiosity). I have observed that pigs are capable of a number of principled and cognitively complex mental activities generally reserved for human beings: affection; abstract discrimination and its offspring, perversity and subterfuge, for example. They are also capable of loyalty and love, but I’d spend the rest of this book and the next three trying to settle on satisfactory definitions and boundaries for those.
Then there’s “being”, which was the philosophical obsession of the twentieth century, and for which it has proved impossible to secure stable definitions. In 1962, when I wasn’t yet aware of Martin Heidegger and those really heavy, thick books in front of which I’ve never managed to stay awake long enough to struggle through more than a few paragraphs, I thought that being could only be located in certain Left Bank Paris cafes patronized by Simone De Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, and the lamented-by-me-if-not-the-Ecole-Normale-and-the-French-Communist-Party ghost of Albert Camus.
My understanding of what being is, changed on the morning of December 26, 1962. It changed at the precise moment that Ronald Surry jammed the sheet of plywood he’d carried out into the field between the Landrace and Welsh boars. It ceased to be a fanciful and romantic pursuit of a gossamer notion of existence’s purpose that one was free to ignore, and became instead the root of my private history of the moral capacity (and duty) to interfere with the inherent violence of nature, of which human beings are a working, occasionally leading, and always affective part, but not necessarily the exclusive or even defining agents.
Why do I think this? A month or so after we separated the two boars, Ronald told me that he believed that the planet we live on might be nothing more than the universe’s experimental laboratory.
“For what?” I asked.
“Intelligence,” he said. “The Universe seems to want to know how—and if—intelligence can mix successfully with organic being.”
At the time I wasn’t quick enough to ask him how he thought the experiment was going. I’m pretty sure what his answer would have been: not well. It was less than a month into 1963 when this conversation took place, roughly three months after the United States and the Soviet Union had come within hours of blowing up the world and ending any further evolution of anything organic except for some deep-sea bacteria. They’d stopped only because Nikita Khrushchev, a man fond of whacking desks with shoes and sending people to work camps in Siberia, blinked at the last moment.
In October 1962 the future hadn’t looked promising and in January 1963 it didn’t look much better. Between the United States and the Soviet Union there were thirty-three thousand nuclear bombs, and they were pointed at every half-assed target on the planet, including, I discovered a few years ago, the small town in Northern B.C where I grew up. The Soviet Union was at the beginning of the long fun-free decline that would see it dismantle itself in 1989. The Americans were about to assassinate every remaining leader in the world (including their own) who wasn’t a dull plutocrat, and begin a long string of unwinnable wars on behalf of capitalism that everyone on earth but rich Americans and Western Europeans was going to lose. If Ronald Surry didn’t think the universe’s experiment had much of a future, you could hardly blame him for that. I didn’t, because for all my idealism, I had an even dimmer view of our collective prospects than he did.
But since I’m writing this more than a half-century later and the experiment is still in progress, maybe Ronald and I were both wrong. And that has to be a good thing, right?
Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of dooneyscafe.com since its inception in 2001.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.