top of page

You Say What? A Primer on Social and Multispecies Intelligence

Sermon delivered at the Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains

August 6, 2022

We keep fighting voices in our minds that say we’re not enough

Every single lie that tells us all that we will never measure up

Are we more than just the sum of every high and every low?

We need each other to remind us once again just who we are because we need to know what you say of me:

You say I am loved when I can't feel a thing

You say I am strong when I think I am weak

You say I am held when I am falling short

When I don't belong,

Oh, you say I am Yours

And I believe what you say of me

I believe

Words adapted from “You Say” by Lauren Daigle

I begin with an oxymoron, a sign of either a great orator or perhaps someone who is as perplexed as you are at the state of the world and our understanding of it.

The oxymoron: Social intelligence.

There doesn’t seem to be very much smarts going on in our societies these days. Our social relationships are under duress and we are learning that we don’t have a lot of control of our behavior.

For instance, in one study, they found that people would have harsher moral judgements of others if their disgust reaction was stimulated. They stimulated the disgust reaction by using fart spray. Who says science isn’t fun? They sprayed trashcans with varying amounts of the odiferous solution that mimicked human flatulence and had people watch videos about marriage, sex, environmentally correct behaviors, and morally questionable films. The stronger the concentration of the spray, the more strongly the participants judged the strangers in the videos.

Our behavior is also impacted subconsciously by other individuals, and not just by their gas. We are more likely to follow or believe someone who is taller or has a deeper voice. Groups of people will also act in ways not predictable by the sum parts of each individual’s personality or world view. There are many theories explaining how crowds turn into mobs, but most involve a dissolution of the self into a group at a subconscious level, a loosening of standards for what constitutes decent behavior, shared values amongst the gathered, and anonymity further fueled by social media – all of which came together January 6th of last year.

But mob or group behavior is not always harmful. Mixed flocks of birds will mob predators, risking themselves and even their species, to help the community. Humans, when they see someone helping another or acting compassionately, are more likely to do so themselves. They also become more generous. For instance, if you see someone helping another, you are more likely to put more into an offering basket.

Western kingbird attacking a red-tailed hawk*

Laughter too is a subconscious social phenomenon. Studies show that people who share laughter are more likely to consider each other to be similar, and want to affiliate with them. It boosts our sense of connection to each other. The down side is that shared laughter enforces the in-group connection and contributes to building up walls between us and them.

How do we lower these walls that divide us? David Brooks, a New York Times Columnist, researched how it is that humans make up stories about why they feel what they do and why they do what they do, and he mused, “One of the most unsettling findings of modern psychology is that we often don’t know why we do what we do. People will concoct some plausible story, but often they really have no idea why they chose what they did.”

He concluded, “Maybe we can’t know ourselves through the process we call introspection. But we can gain pretty good self-awareness by extrospection, by closely observing the behavior of others...we can attain true wisdom and pretty good self-awareness by looking at behavior and reality in the face to create more accurate narratives. In telling ever more accurate stories about ourselves, we send different beliefs, values and expectations down into the complex nether reaches of our minds, and — in ways we may never understand — that leads to better desires, better decision-making and more gracious living.”

Accurate narratives are a group process because who we think of as a self is actually a bunch of neural wiring created by relationships. Infants have been studied thoroughly in this regard and their emotional and mental development depends on those to whom they relate in their environment, quite strongly with mothers and parents, but also animals and trees. Their sense of self, called the ecological self, depends on who else is in their environment, interactions and relationships. This works at a meta-level as human species physiology evolved around the environment exerting selection pressure on our genes, meaning that we are hard wired, as well as culturally and developmentally prone, to be part the human group, part dog, and part bird.

In the book, “The Parrot in the Mirror,” Antone Martinho-Truswell, a behavioral ecologist, said that the challenges to life on earth, indeed the ache of physical suffering and death, caused birds and humans to develop similar traits in a process called convergent evolution. We both are very social, smart, live long lives, move around more in the day and raise our young more like birds and unlike other mammals.

In another book, “Avian Illuminations” by Boria Sax, who teachers at nearby Mercy College and lives in White Plains, writes how humans’ close relationship to birds shaped our culture and human identity. With one example after another he shows how intimately our bonds with birds are bound up in the matrix of ideas, practices, fears and hopes that make up human civilization. He concludes that a world without birds would effectively mean the end of humankind, for they not only tell us how we got to be where we are, but what we might yet become. Listening to everyone in our environment tells us who we are.

We are not our own, others formed us. Earth formed us.

One way that we see how we are one another is in the deep ancestral roots of subjective experience, especially in the realm of body state, affect, and needs. According to the Constructive Emotion Theory, there are no genetically hardwired emotions such as “anger” or “joy.” The only thing that is truly biological is whether the we are attracted or repulsed (level of pleasantness or unpleasantness we experience) by something and if it results in low or high arousal. We share this with other species, all the way back to one-celled beings. The brain interprets what the body is experiencing and forms stories and words to describe the experience particular to each individual, though modified by family and culture.

Basically, any assumptions beyond our basic animal body experience, which formed out of earth and with all others, has been constructed and ultimately politicized. We want to live, and live well, and so we categorize the mysteries of life into understandable sound bites, so that we might make the next hard decision. A religion professor once said in an ethics class on nature and Religion that I was auditing at the University of Florida, “Life is just one tragic decision after another. That is why we need one another so we can do the least harm possible.” But instead, we often blame the other based on stories we have been taught.

As Miki Kashton, a prominent facilitator of Nonviolent Communication once told me, “Don’t believe anything you believe, for you have been taught what has been based on disconnection and domination.”

So how do we change our culture to one based on the reality of interdependence, and diminish the harm caused by subconscious motivations warped by rampant politicization and domination? We need to bring as much into the conscious realm and undo the stories we have been taught by learning new stories based on present body experiences. Then we share with one another at the basic level of being an observer of our animality, and also as a nonjudgmental, humble, curious field biologist of not just human behavior, but of all species.

Two new books might help to train us to connect to humans and other species. One is “Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of our Human Senses,” by Jackie Higgins due out in November and the other is “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us” by Ed Yong. They both expound on how rich are other species' senses and hence subjective experience, and that humans can only perceive a small part of reality. Higgins writes that learning about what others sense could inspire a brave new world of human sentience. One human can only experience a small part of what others do, and by learning about what others experience we can grow our social awareness and effectiveness, even when our shared stories or facts are so far apart.

T. A. Frank in the Washington Post wrote about Sara Palin and said that in his pursuit of how to get Americans to unite on something as modest as a set of shared facts, it became clear to him that the problem was one of “feelings more than metaphysics.” Quoting Linda Zagzebski, author of “Epistemic Authority, “Emotional goodwill precedes the sharing of facts." In other words, “We don’t hate one another because we have a different sense of facts, we have a different sense of facts because we hate one another. Chip away at the distrust and animosity and facts can be pooled once more.”

As a wildlife veterinarian I often have the opportunity to observe other species to arrive at a commonality of shared experiences and shared facts. That’s hard enough, but humans? Family? It’s probably best to practice social intelligence in situations where you are not overly triggered, hence the warning, “Don’t try this at home.”

But there I was visiting a close family member who lives in Southern Virginia. Visiting him is like coming home, because there is love between us, yet there are times that are uncomfortable for me, and probably for him. His home is literally a Civil War museum, and it complements quite well the tattoo of General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate flag on his arm. He had invited a group of his buddies over to play poker. They kept throwing out one-line statements that left me with an energy of “You say what!?” Their reality was so different than mine.

Removing myself from the fog of cigarettes and whisky, I excused myself to the bathroom where the toilet paper was a roll with President Obama’s face on every sheet. I put my face in my hands and said to myself, Okay, smarty pants Dr. Consultant on social and multispecies intelligence, watcha gonna do? Well let’s see if I can take my skills of observing red-necked grebes and apply it here.

So, I went back out there and while sweeping up their quarters from the poker game, I went through the political list. Tell me where you stand on immigration. What about health care? Abortion? Each time I heard some politicized retort, I tried to dig deeper why they thought that way, and what they actually did regarding each issue. I asked about their feelings and needs, and then observed my own. And this is where their reality diverged from Fox News. From all the outrageous comments (maybe mine were unvoiced but were still present in my mind) emerged a sense of what their lives were like, of where they had a lot of compassion for a wide variety of people and animals. I could feel in my body their yearning for community, fairness, and meaning that had been captured in the story of the South with all its racist and classicist layers.

Then we spoke about guns. A tough subject in that part of the world, right? But not just there. I work in areas where the indigenous people can’t legally carry guns and they have few options to protect themselves from the criminal and corrupt elements that all carry guns. In May 2022, two of our conservation leaders in Honduras survived an assassination attempt. They were unharmed, though our project truck got shot up. I guess we were getting too successful. I asked what I could do for them and they said what they needed was, guns. I feel that here, deep in my chest.

I wonder sometimes if I "get the other too much.” Paradoxically though, I seem to be taking stronger and braver advocacy stances for the people and parrots in our projects. The use of social intelligence is helping, and it is just one tool among many in my work and life. There are many ways to learn and unlearn. One way is, as Mary Oliver says, to “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Trust that it ties you to all of life. And then who knows what is possible.

The adjacent possible, writes Steven Johnson, is a "kind of shadow future hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” But we must come to the present moment as much as we can. And one way to do that is to grow a group’s social intelligence that is based on what bodies are saying now.

There is no wholeness outside of our connected animality that flows with beauty and tragedy, brokenness and healing.

When we ask, “You say what?” with all our senses and presence, we hear that we are loved, that we are strong, that we are held, that we are each other, and that we belong.

Do you hear?

Dare to hear.

And believe.

A child of our conservationists in La Moskitia, Honduras

listening to the heart of a wild scarlet macaw chick


bottom of page