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In praise of Umwelt

In praise of Umwelt

“I’m not taking your stupid test. It is literally beneath me.”

That’s me putting words in the mouth of a gibbon. Gibbons, it turns out, don’t like to be judged by human standards. In James Bridle’s book, Ways Of Being, they describe how scientists have an anthropocentric habit of assessing the intelligence of non-human beings using inappropriate human criteria.

Ways Of Being by James Bridle (Umwelt)

One genre of tests examines whether apes and primates have the intelligence to use various objects as simple tools to achieve certain objectives. Will they work out how to use a stick to obtain some food for example?

Chimpanzees passed the tests with flying colours, but gibbons kept flunking them. Or so it seemed. Eventually the allegedly clever scientists realised that the allegedly dumb animals weren’t failing the tests, they just couldn’t be bothered to take them. When the researchers hung the potential tools by ropes from the ceiling, the gibbons aced the tests. Cleary, in hindsight, objects on the ground bore no relevance to the gibbon’s worldview. The gibbons’ intelligence wasn’t being insulted, it was being ignored.

Umwelt in theory

Bridle introduces the concept of Umwelt. Translated from German it means ‘environment’ or ‘surroundings’. But in German it has a richer, deeper meaning. It refers to the particular perspective of a particular organism: how that organism perceives the world and what signals and stimuli matter most to it.

The Umwelt of gibbons is arboreal. They live in trees. Their perspective on life is more elevated than ours. Their intelligence manifests in the overstory, not on the ground in a featureless enclosure. The original version of the test was beneath them in every way.

Human beings test non-human beings for human-style intelligence, which they don’t possess, using experiments whose methods completely miss the point. And this makes us blind to the amazing ways in which these non-human beings exhibit alternative forms of intelligence, from which we could learn a lot were it not for our damned anthropocentric superiority complex.

Umwelt in practice

The concept of Umwelt is probably useful for anyone testing anything with a third party audience. Is what matters to them the same as what matters to you? How do they perceive the context for the thing that you’re testing and what does that mean for the relevance of your methods? Umwelt thinking leads to more empathetic testing. Umwelt questions are less likely to be stupid questions.

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