If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal

What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity


By Justin Gregg

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San Francisco Chronicle bestseller •  BOOKRIOT Best Books of the Year • Next Big Idea Book Club Best Science Books of the Year

“I love the book, and everyone should read it.”
Ryan Holiday

"Undeniably entertaining."
The New York Times 

This funny, "extraordinary and thought-provoking" (The Wall Street Journal) book asks whether we are in fact the superior species. As it turns out, the truth is stranger—and far more interesting—than we have been led to believe.

If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal overturns everything we thought we knew about human intelligence, and asks the question: would humans be better off as narwhals? Or some other, less brainy species? There’s a good argument to be made that humans might be a less successful animal species precisely because of our amazing, complex intelligence.
All our unique gifts like language, math, and science do not make us happier or more “successful” (evolutionarily speaking) than other species. Our intelligence allowed us to split the atom, but we’ve harnessed that knowledge to make machines of war. We are uniquely susceptible to bullshit (though, cuttlefish may be the best liars in the animal kingdom); our bizarre obsession with lawns has contributed to the growing threat of climate change; we are sexually diverse like many species yet stand apart as homophobic; and discriminate among our own as if its natural, which it certainly is not. Is our intelligence more of a curse than a gift?    

As scientist Justin Gregg persuasively argues, there’s an evolutionary reason why human intelligence isn’t more prevalent in the animal kingdom. Simply put, non-human animals don’t need it to be successful. And, miraculously, their success arrives without the added baggage of destroying themselves and the planet in the process. 

In seven mind-bending and hilarious chapters, Gregg highlights one feature seemingly unique to humans—our use of language, our rationality, our moral systems, our so-called sophisticated consciousness—and compares it to our animal brethren. Along the way, remarkable tales of animal smarts emerge, as you’ll discover: 

“A dazzling, delightful read on what animal cognition can teach us about our own mental shortcomings.”
– Adam Grant

  • The house cat who’s better at picking winning stocks than actual fund managers 
  • Elephants who love to drink
  • Pigeons who are better than radiologists at spotting cancerous tissue
  • Bumblebees who are geniuses at teaching each other soccer

What emerges is both demystifying and remarkable, and will change how you look at animals, humans, and the meaning of life itself.


Chapter 1

The Why Specialists

A story of hats, bets, and chicken butts

Gradually, man has become a fantastic animal that has to fulfill one more condition of existence than any other animal: man has to believe, to know, from time to time, why he exists.


It took Mike McCaskill twenty years to beat the stock market. But when he did, boy, did he succeed.

Mike started small, trading penny stocks as a hobby while working at his parents’ furniture store.2 When the store closed in 2007, he decided to turn to his hobby full-time. He sold his car for $10,000, and then stuck that cash into his trading account. Over the next two years, a volatile market and the subprime mortgage crisis saw the S&P 500 lose half its value, which only served to excite a day trader like Mike. He reveled in the chance to unravel the mystery of where the market was going. He predicted that stocks would spike not long after the election of President Obama, so he took the hundreds of thousands he had made in penny stocks and dumped it into the regular stock market.

But he was wrong.

As Obama was sworn in on January 20, 2009, Mike watched as the Dow Jones continued to plummet, eventually hitting its lowest point during the financial crisis on March 5 at 6,594.44 points. That was a 50 percent drop from the all-time high in October 2007 of 14,164.43, and was just 3 percent shy of the record-breaking crash that sparked the Great Depression in 1929. It looked bad for Mike. His trading account was completely wiped out.

But Mike regrouped, scraping together a few hundred dollars that he put back into his account, though this time he would alter his portfolio strategy so it would pay out if the market should lose money. In other words, he would short stocks; a highly risky strategy where he’d borrow shares in a stock and then sell them with a promise to buy them back later and return them to the lender. If the stock price dropped, he’d make money on the resale, but if the stock price went up, he’d be forced to buy the shares back and take a huge loss. This is the trick that investors like Michael Burry and Mark Baum in The Big Short used to bet against the housing market in 2007. At the time, the housing market was considered one of the safest bets in American finance, so betting that it would lose value was both risky and seemingly foolish. Of course, as we now know, their prediction turned out to be right, and they made a killing. For Mike, however, his prediction turned out to be wrong. The $700 billion that the US government had pumped into the economy through the Troubled Asset Relief Program started to work. As of early April, the market rebounded. And Mike, who bet on market collapse, lost everything. Again.

Frustrated, Mike quit trading full-time and spent the next ten years working at King Louie’s Sports Complex in Louisville, Kentucky, eventually becoming the director of volleyball and golf programming. He still dabbled in stocks, betting on long-shot stocks that could potentially make him a millionaire. That’s when he stumbled across GameStop.

It was the summer of 2020, and the company was struggling: a brick-and-mortar video-game seller trying to keep afloat in a market dominated by a digital retail environment. Hardly anyone goes to the mall anymore to sift through products at stores like GameStop. They just order straight from Amazon, or download games directly to their PlayStations. Michael Pachter, a video game and digital media and electronics analyst with Wedbush Securities, described GameStop as a melting ice cube. “For sure it’s going to go away eventually,” he told Business Insider in January 2020, estimating that the company would be finished within a decade.3 Andrew Left, a high-profile investor with Citron Research who specialized in short-selling, pinpointed GameStop as “a failing mall-based retailer” that was “drowning,”4 which is why he and many other investors began shorting the stock in huge quantities. Like Mike in 2009 and the small group of people who bet against the housing market in 2007, these professionals decided to cash in on GameStop’s imminent collapse. On paper, at least, this seemed reasonable.

But Mike didn’t think GameStop was destined for bankruptcy. Quite the opposite. He was not only sure that GameStop was a viable company, but that all these short positions held by these hedge fund managers meant that its stock could go through the roof in what’s called a short squeeze. If the stock price started to go up, investors with short positions would try to offload their stocks quickly to cut their losses. This mass selling would cause the stock to rise even faster, creating a squeeze, and making anyone smart enough to have bought stock when it was worth next to nothing a crap ton of money.

Mike’s gut told him that a short squeeze was on the horizon. He began buying stock options, which meant he would buy the stock once it hit a certain price. But the stock didn’t move much at first, his options expired, and Mike continued to zero out his account repeatedly. Then, in late 2020, Mike hit it big on another stock pick—Bionano Genomics—giving him a fresh cash injection, which he dumped into GameStop. Soon after, in January 2021, the squeeze started. A series of improbable and confusing events led to a rapid rise in the value of GameStop in the market, including the millions of people following Reddit’s wallstreetbets subreddit: They had identified the company as having an inordinate number of short positions, which sparked a coordinated effort to buy the stock in droves. As you can imagine, the move screwed over investors like Andrew Left who were, in the eyes of the redditors, cynically betting on the demise of a vulnerable company. It worked. GameStop rather famously increased in value by a ludicrous amount—having gone from around $4 a share when Mike started buying it to a high of $347.51 by January 27. Mike cashed out.

He made $25 million.

What are we to make of this? The lesson here is not that it takes serious smarts and years of experience studying the stock market to correctly predict why and when stock prices will rise and fall. There was no way that Mike could have known that the market vigilantes from wallstreetbets were either planning on or capable of creating such a historic and artificial short squeeze on GameStop. There was nothing about Mike’s gut that was magically more prescient. In fact, as we’ve seen, he was often more wrong than right when it came to betting on the stock market. With GameStop, he simply got lucky.

Consider a similar story that also involves luck, but with an unexpected protagonist. In 2012, the British Sunday newspaper The Observer held a contest between three teams: a group of schoolchildren, three professional investment managers, and a house cat named Orlando.5 Each team was given £5,000 (about US $7,000) to invest in stocks from the FTSE All-Share index and could switch up their stocks every three months. The team with the most money in their account after a year would win. Orlando “picked” his stocks by dropping a toy mouse onto a grid with numbers corresponding to stocks he could buy. After one year of investing, the kids had lost money, with £4,840 left in their account. The fund managers had £5,176. Orlando beat them all with £5,542.

Unlike the kids or the fund managers, there is no way for a cat to know what was happening. Although some animals can be taught to exchange tokens for rewards and thus attribute arbitrary value to otherwise value-less objects, the abstract concept of “money,” let alone “the stock market,” exists only in the heads of Homo sapiens. Orlando’s stock-picking technique was just the researchers’ clever way of generating random stock picks to prove a point. That point being that people investing in the stock market might as well be throwing darts at a board. When it comes to picking winning stocks, it’s all a big crapshoot.

With Orlando in mind, I was curious to know how Mike McCaskill would characterize his stock-picking prowess. So, in March 2021, I called him up to ask. I told him that I was writing a book about human and animal intelligence. I told him the story of Orlando vs. the fund managers and that it appears as if luck—not knowledge—seems to play a huge role when it comes to the stock market. To my astonishment, Mike McCaskill, who had spent twenty years studying the stock market and had just earned $25 million, said: “I agree. It’s a hundred percent all luck.”

Now, it’s true that Mike had researched GameStop and deduced that it was primed for a squeeze. But Andrew Left was equally as convinced that a squeeze was impossible. Left was wrong. Back in 2020, Michael Pachter was sure GameStop would be gone by the end of the decade, although as of March 2021, he had changed his tune and now proclaims that GameStop is “here to stay.”6 One of those predictions is obviously wrong. The wallstreetbets redditors were sure that GameStop was headed for a short squeeze, which was right. But they were also sure that the squeeze would continue past the $347.51 peak on January 27 and encouraged everyone to hold the stock. That was wrong. GameStop crashed back down to under $50 just a few days after Mike dumped his stock and became a millionaire. Mike got lucky there, too. He agreed with the redditors that the stock was going to keep climbing—maybe climb above $1,000 per share. But, on a whim, he decided that his $25 million profit was good enough and dumped his stock at exactly the right moment. Mike’s rags-to-riches story is built on a series of random and fortuitous events.

“Human nature likes order,” wrote the economist Burton Malkiel in his seminal book A Random Walk Down Wall Street. “People find it hard to accept the notion of randomness.” Malkiel popularized the idea that the movement of any individual stock in the market is essentially random—it’s impossible to know why a stock is doing what it’s doing. People who reliably make money from the market are those who own a diverse portfolio of different kinds of investments (e.g., stocks, bonds, annuities), which spreads out the risk, with the broader principle that the market, over the long haul, will eventually increase in value. Picking individual stocks, or betting on certain trends, is much closer to gambling than science. Which is why we shouldn’t be too surprised that a cat is just as likely to make a killing on Wall Street as a day trader.

Mike McCaskill spent his career asking a simple question: Why do stock prices go up? This need to understand why is what differentiates Mike (and humans in general) from nonhuman animals. And it’s what makes Mike’s story so revealing. As soon as human children learn their first words, the whys start coming. My daughter once asked me: Why can’t the cat talk? A good question. And one I have dedicated my research career to answering. As we grow older, we never stop asking these types of questions. Why haven’t we found signs of alien life? Why do people commit murder? Why do we die? Humans are the why specialist species. It is one of a handful of cognitive traits that separates our thinking style from other animals.

And yet, this burning desire to understand cause and effect does not always give us a leg up. As Mike’s investment story reveals, asking “why” did not give him, the hedge fund managers, or anyone an edge when it came to stock price predictions. Without knowing why stocks move, Orlando the cat’s decision-making system produced similar results. And it’s not limited to stocks. The world is full of animals making effective, beneficial decisions all the time—and hardly any of it involves contemplating why the world is the way it is. Being human and a why specialist has obvious benefits, as we will see in this chapter. But if we look at decision-making across time and species, including our own, I propose we consider a provocative premise: Does asking why give us a biological advantage? The answer might seem obvious (yes!), but I don’t think it is. In order to help answer this question, consider this: Even though our species can grasp cause and effect on a deep level, we barely used this ability for the first quarter of a million years we walked the Earth. That tells us something rather important, from an evolutionary perspective, about the value of why.

The origins of why

Let’s imagine that we’re in the basket of a hot-air balloon. We’re floating gently over the canopy of a lush green forest that coats a cluster of undulating hills overlooking Lake Baringo in western Kenya. Or at least what will one day be known as Kenya. This is a time-traveling hot-air balloon, and we’ve been transported back to the Middle Pleistocene (now officially renamed the Chibanian Age) exactly 240,000 years ago. It is dusk. The air is heavy and moist, signaling the start of the monsoon season. This area would have been much wetter during the Chibanian, making the area around Lake Baringo one of the lushest and most productive in the region. From our vantage point a few hundred meters above the basin, we can see movement on the ground all around us—two distinct animal groups making their way toward the tree line as the sun sets.

One of the groups is instantly recognizable: chimpanzees. A handful of females with their young in tow, and a group of larger males scouting ahead. With night approaching, they are likely looking to find some trees to build a nest and settle in for the night. The other group is even more familiar. It is a group of modern humans—Homo sapiens—similar in number to the chimpanzee group. In fact, similar in almost every regard. There are females with their young and a group of males scouting their way toward the forest where they will set up camp for the evening. Humans and chimpanzees both descended from the same ape ancestor that roamed Africa seven million years ago: Sahelanthropus tchadensis. To the untrained eye, this ancient ape from west Africa would’ve looked like a chimpanzee. Its ancestors would branch off to eventually evolve into modern chimpanzees on one side, and our human relatives on the other, including Australopithecus and Homo erectus. You’ve probably seen this lot in a natural history museum or textbook: that famous lineup of the “origins of man” that has become the basis of countless parodies and memes. After seven million years in Africa, chimpanzees and humans still lived very similar lifestyles in nearly identical conditions to their ancient ape predecessors. We know from the fossil record that humans and chimpanzees lived side by side in this area of the East African Rift 240,000 years ago.7

I’ve guided our time-traveling balloon to this era in this particular location because it’s the first appearance of what scientists now consider to be modern humans.8 They are nearly identical to you or me in every conceivable way—physically and cognitively.9 And yet, nothing about their lifestyle resembles how we have come to live in the twenty-first century. Like their chimpanzee cousins asleep in the trees, these early humans roamed the shores of the lake, searching for berry patches and animal carcasses. They would likely have been naked, free from jewelry, clothing, or any of the artistic or symbolic adornments that we use today. However, their nakedness reveals some significant differences from chimpanzees: far fewer hair follicles and more exposed skin, designed for sweat to evaporate quickly and keep the body cool as they wandered under the blazing sun. Humans also have longer legs with relatively more muscle in their lower limbs, another adaptation to support our ambulatory (walking) lifestyle.10 And then of course there are the heads. The front half of the human and chimpanzee head—the face area—is similar enough, with the obvious exception being the chin. Humans have one, but chimpanzees do not. Strangely, no other hominid species throughout history evolved chins before Homo sapiens came along. Remarkably, scientists still don’t have a clear answer as to why we have chins.11 But it’s the back half of our heads that’s truly astonishing. Human heads are round, looking like an overfilled water balloon. That extra cranial space is stuffed with brain tissue—three times the size as our chimpanzee cousins.

There are also some behavioral traits that distinguish the humans. They are holding rudimentary stone tools, which they’ve used to carve meat off a dead elephant. One of the older female humans is helping a child spin a wood shaft into a notch in an old dry log in order to create a cooking fire, giving her instructions in the unmistakable cadence of human language.12 The chimpanzees, on the other hand, are mostly silent, with only nut-cracking stones (not sharp blades) in their possession, and certainly no chimpanzee-made fires. They simply don’t have the kind of minds that allows them to create these things. To this day, the ability to create both fire and stone blades remains outside of their cognitive capabilities.

Despite some clear differences in cognition that led to breakthroughs like fire and blades, early humans and chimpanzees remained relatively similar for most of the Chibanian. As the period drew to a close some 126,000 years ago, humans began their infamous journey out of Africa, using those long muscular legs to carry themselves to Europe where they would encounter Neanderthals and Denisovans—two hominid species that had evolved in Asia and Europe from a common ancestor that left Africa two million years earlier. Like humans, they had use of fire, spears, and stone tools, and may well have had language abilities to some extent. Humans both mated and competed with these other species until there was nothing left but traces of them in our DNA. Then, around 200,000 years after our initial hot-air balloon trip to Lake Baringo, evidence that our human ancestors were asking some of the important why questions that would lead to our impending domination of this planet cropped up for the first time in the form of cave paintings.

Roughly 43,900 years ago, a group of humans living in Sulawesi, Indonesia, walked into a cave on the island’s southwest tip and began drawing. Using red pigment, they created a series of hunting scenes—humans chasing wild pigs with ropes and spears. But there was something odd about the humans depicted in the drawings: They had animal heads. These half-human, half-animal figures are called therianthropes (from the Greek theri/θἠρ meaning beast and Anthropos/ἄνθρωπος meaning man). A few thousand years later, a European ancestor carved the Löwenmensch figurine: a limestone therianthrope statue depicting a human with a lion’s head found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave system near Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

There is really one reason that, forty millennia ago, our human ancestors would spend time creating art in the form of therianthropes. It symbolized something. When we see therianthropes represented in art from the past few thousand years, it’s typically associated with religious symbolism: like Horace (the falcon-headed Egyptian god), Lucifer (often depicted as half-human, half-goat in Christian art), or Ganesh (the elephant-headed Hindu god). The Sulawesian therianthropes are “the world’s earliest known evidence for our ability to conceive of the existence of supernatural beings,” Dr. Adam Brumm told the New York Times after he and his research team discovered the Sulawesian therianthropes in 2017.13 What is a supernatural being? It is a creature that has abilities and knowledge beyond what humans have. Some experts suggest that these therianthropes might be spirit guides, creatures giving us aid, answers, or advice.14 This assumes, then, that our ancestors had been asking questions that required supernatural answers. And what could these questions possibly be other than those that underpin all religions: Why does the world exist? Why am I here? And why do I have to die? These ancient therianthropes are the best evidence we have of why specialist questions swimming about in our ancestors’ heads.

Soon after our ancestors carved the first therianthropes, evidence of novel technologies begin popping up in the archaeological record. Like hats. The first evidence of a human wearing a hat stems from 25,000 years ago in the form of the Venus von Willendorf statue, a limestone carving depicting a female figure wearing a beaded headdress. Although I am sure it’s just dumb luck in terms of which ancient artifacts we’ve dug up, I find it amusing that the evidence of humans conceiving of the supernatural predates evidence that we wore hats. It suggests that our ancestors were more concerned with the problem of why we die than why their heads get wet when it rains.

After the appearance of therianthropes and hats, the human capacity for creating stuff based on our understanding of cause and effect really took off. There’s evidence from about 23,000 years ago that a small group of humans living in current-day Israel had figured out how to plant and harvest wild barley and oats in little farm plots.15 An understanding of what causes seeds to germinate, and how they can be cared for over the course of a growing season was a huge deal. We now had precise control over planning our meals. This is a direct result of our understanding of cause and effect as we developed an understanding of plant behavior. A more rudimentary sense of things like gravity allowed the ancient Romans to build massive aqueducts, transporting water over huge distances and even pumping it uphill. As we stared at a river, we wondered, rather remarkably, why the water was moving, and used the answer to that question to help us build our ancient cities.

These “why” questions underpin our greatest discoveries: Why is that star always in the same place each spring? Astronomy as a field was born. Why do I keep getting diarrhea when I drink milk? This was a question that probably kept Louis Pasteur up at night, leading to the discovery of pasteurization. Why does my hair stand on end when I shuffle barefoot across a rug? We now understand this as a result of a phenomenon known as “electricity.” Why are there so many different plant and animal species? Charles Darwin had a good answer to this one (evolution). Anything we’ve held up as an example of our intellectual exceptionalism—and that differentiates our behavior from that of other species—has the deepest of roots in this one skill. Of all the things that fall under the glittery umbrella of human intelligence, our understanding of cause and effect is the source from which everything else springs.

These are all remarkable feats, and indeed, once this “why specialization” began, our story becomes littered with grand achievements in the sciences, the arts, and everything in between. But then we must ask: Why did it take so long to begin? Why did we spend 200,000 years not doing this?

The answer is quite simple. Despite what our gut tells us, being a why specialist is just not that big of a deal. It may feel important, but that feeling is human bias at work. From the point of view of evolution, it’s simply not that special at all. Indeed, all animals, including our own for a long time, got by just fine without any need to ask “why.” It’s time to rethink its relative importance. While it has produced inarguable benefits—like pasteurized milk—it’s also the most likely cause of our impending extinction. But before we go down that dark path, let’s first get to grips with how being a why specialist differs from the way other animals think about the world.

The bear behind the bush

Last fall, I went walking in the woods under a canopy of yellowing maple leaves together with my friend Andrea and her dog Lucy. Suddenly, the silence of the forest was broken by a deep whomp that resonated in the ground beneath our feet. Up ahead on the path, the leaves of an alder bush were rustling. We froze in place, nervous that maybe a bear was lurking near us. I went over to investigate. Instead of a bear, I found a large branch of a long-dead tree, which must have rolled down the hill a few feet before coming to rest against the alder, generating that sound that had startled all three of us.

This scenario is something that animals have been dealing with for millions of years. Natural selection is built on countless iterations of animals hearing a sudden sound, determining what it signifies, and deciding how to react. For apex predators like the Komodo dragon (an enormous Indonesian lizard that has been known to eat people), a random noise in the bush might trigger curiosity as it could be something to eat. For prey species like squirrels, a sudden noise might be the opposite: a potential predator or threat that would send it fleeing in the opposite direction.

There are only two ways an animal can interpret the significance of a sudden noise. The first is to learn through association that a loud noise emanating from behind a bush often precedes the appearance of a living thing. The second is to infer that a noise is caused by a living thing. It sounds subtle, but this difference—between learned associations and causal inference—is where nonhuman animal thinking ends and being a why specialist begins.

Consider the burrowing bettong. This bizarre little marsupial from Western Australia looks like a miniature kangaroo with the face of a mouse, a thick rat tail, and the body of a pudgy squirrel. They were once one of the most populous mammals in Australia, but there are now just 19,000 left.16 The near extinction of the bettong was due to the introduction of non-native wildlife by European settlers, including the infamously murderous house cat and the red fox. Bettongs, you see, do not have much in the way of a natural fear of cats or foxes. Whereas most bite-sized marsupials would flee, bettongs just stand around nonchalantly. Unsurprisingly, this makes them easy prey. In a recent experiment, researchers compared the behavior of bettongs that had been exposed to catlike predators to those that were seeing a catlike predator for the first time.17 As you might expect, bettongs that had experiences with catlike predators fled, whereas bettongs that had never encountered a cat saw no reason to scurry. In other words, bettongs needed to learn that cats and foxes pose a threat. As a result, conservationists in the region have been actively teaching bettongs to fear cats and foxes so that they can be released into the wild again as a way to preserve their species from extinction. But it’s not easy. Without a natural instinctive fear, each bettong will need to experience the threat firsthand to develop the correct learned association. Self-preservation, in other words, must be taught through experience.

Humans, on the other hand, can bypass this process and learn without necessarily needing firsthand experience. Humans’ why specialist thinking offers us two cognitive skills that animals like bettongs lack: imagination and an understanding of causality. Humans are capable of cycling through what primate researchers Elisabetta Visalberghi and Michael Tomasello call an infinite “web of possibilities”18 in our mind’s eye in search of an explanation for what our senses are picking up. The comparative psychologist Thomas Suddendorf describes this imaginative skill as an “open-ended capacity to create nested mental scenarios” in his book The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals,


  • If Nietzsche Were A Narwhal makes some extraordinary and thought-provoking points. It is not only engagingly written, but its controversial thesis is worth taking seriously… some of the cognitive concepts introduced… are nothing less than brilliant.”—David P. Barash, Wall Street Journal
  • “A dazzling, delightful read on what animal cognition can teach us about our own mental shortcomings. You won’t just tear through this book in one sitting—you’ll probably want to invite Justin Gregg over for dinner to spend more time inside his brilliant mind. This is one of the best debuts I’ve read in a long time, and I dare you to open it without rethinking some of your basic ideas about intelligence.”
     —Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again
  • “A snappy read: it left me wondering why we don't respect signals of intelligence from other species—and more deeply consider how our own intelligence works against us.”—Amy Brady, Scientific American
  • "I defy you not to be interested by this book--it finds a novel way of getting at very deep questions about who we are and what it means, and does so with clear-eyed compassion and a certain humor that softens the conclusion a bit."
     —Bill McKibben, bestselling author of The End of Nature and Falter
  • “Enlightening! If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is a hilarious and thrilling look at intelligence that asks: are humans really the best? Gregg will dazzle and sweep you off your feet with his detailed exploration of the animal kingdom and its many secrets. This is an absolute must-read.”—Wednesday Martin, bestselling author of Untrue and Primates of Park Avenue
  • “If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is a book full of observations as surprising and off-the-beaten-path as its title. It’s scientifically very well informed. But it’s not a treatise—it’s a pleasure.”—Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words and Becoming Wild
  • “If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is a funny, perceptive book that answers questions we've been told not to ask. Like many of the great sages, Justin Gregg uses animal stories to treat deep questions of consciousness and justice. The result is a deft field guide to the mixed blessings of intelligence and the real possibility that consciousness (and joy) exist perfectly well without it. “
     —William Poundstone, author of How Do You Fight a Horse-Sized Duck?
  • “A sparkling and witty tour of the many minds we share this planet with. Nietzsche might be surprised to find himself contemplated in the company of beasts from narwhals to slugs — but the fascinating and detailed payoff of the cognitive lives of so many animals is immense.”
     —Clive Wynne, author of Dog is Love
  •  “What’s it like to be a bat, a bee, or a bed bug? In this enthralling book, Justin Gregg offers a window into the minds of other creatures, and debunks many of the myths of human exceptionalism. He makes the provocative argument that human thinking may be complex, but it is by no means superior - and its unique qualities could even be the cause of our species’ ultimate downfall. If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is both a humbling and awe-inspiring read” —David Robson, author of The Intelligence Trap and The Expectation Effect
  • “This is an important book to read if you want to understand animals for what they are - not as cardboard cutouts, or as furry humans. Animal minds aren't in competition with us, although Gregg makes a good case that if they were, they would win hands down. The idea that human intelligence may be nothing more than a failed evolutionary dead end, gives humanity an important challenge to which we must rise.”—Arik Kershenbaum, author of The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • “We’ve heard that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, but have you ever considered that having a human mind is more a bane than a gift? Justin Gregg’s delightful and provocative book melds science with anecdote to explore that question. Read it, have your preconceptions challenged, and feel some humility. It might do you good.”—Jonathan Balcombe, author of Super Fly and What a Fish Knows
  • "I felt dumber after reading this book. Mission accomplished, Justin!"—David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine
  • "Combining first-rate story-telling with the latest research on animal minds and cognitive psychology, If Nietzsche Were A Narwhal is the rare book that will cause readers to think deeply about big questions and moral issues and to laugh out loud on nearly every page. I loved it."—Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat
  • "A highly original take on the nature of intelligence across life forms. Simultaneously thought-provoking and delightfully humorous, Justin Gregg guides readers into an essential re-thinking of human exceptionalism. This is a welcome upending of all we have been molded to believe about human and other-than-human animal minds."  —Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of Rooted and Mozart’s Starling
  • If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is an unusual, delightful, and entertaining book that will help us achieve a more precise understanding of human nature, counterintuitively by looking at our reflection in light of the clues of conscious behavior expressed by our fellow animals. I loved Dr. Gregg’s book because I learned quite a few interesting things from each chapter. As a scholar, I can offer no higher praise. Highly recommended.”—Oné R. Pagán, author of Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins: A Trip Through the World of Animal Intoxication
  • If Nietzsche were a Narwhal is a beautiful, thought-provoking and often hilarious exploration of this planet’s different kinds of minds. Justin Gregg points out that while many of the hallmarks of human intelligence are also found, in some form, in animals from insects to narwhals, humans are by all means exceptional. But our intelligence is still constrained by our evolutionary history; we may be too intelligent for own good, and too stupid to look after our planet with a sufficiently long-term planning perspective. Gregg’s magnificent book is a poignant reminder that if we don’t raise our game fast, we might once again cede Earth to the rule of insects and other supposedly less intelligent creatures.”—Lars Chittka, author of The Mind of a Bee
  • "Gregg’s clever and provocative book is full of irreverent notions and funny anecdotes...undeniably entertaining."—Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
  • "Entertaining work of pop science...[If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal] is a lighthearted conceit, and it leads to an enlightening tour of animal behavior...wonderfully accessible and charmingly narrated, this is a fascinating investigation of intellect and cognition."—Publishers Weekly
  • “Gregg shows how increased cognitive skills do not necessarily equate to success…This insightful book provides food for thought and lends credence to that notion… A fascinating take on human intelligence.”—Kirkus Book Reviews
  • "You’ll be laughing and contemplating up a storm in your chaise lounge during this enlightening book that compares the animal kingdom and humans. Dolphin scientist Justin Gregg makes you think about language, mortality, consciousness, and more—opening your eyes to animal parallels. Are we really as smart as we think?" —Men's Journal, Best Summer Reads
  • "A timely, thought-provoking and often sobering book that will make you look at humans, animals and the future of our planet with new eyes." —BookPage
  • "Tackling the topic of intelligence is no small feat. Science writer and researcher Gregg seems up for the challenge, though, relying on a combination of cognitive science, philosophy, and behavioral studies. The science here can be surprising....informative and thought-provoking."—Booklist
  • “I love the book, and everyone should read it.”—Ryan Holiday, host of The Daily Stoic podcast and New York Times bestselling author
  • "Would Nietzsche have been happier— and would the world overall have been a better place— had the philosopher been born some other species other than human? On its face, it sounds like an absurd question. But in If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal, scientist Justin Gregg convincingly argues that the answer is yes— and not only for Nietzsche, but for all of us.”—Undark Magazine
  • "In the best tradition of “popular science” writing, Gregg, an adjunct professor of biology at St Francis Xavier University…draw[s] on a vast body of research from medicine, animal behaviour, human behaviour, history, social studies and philosophy to explore a provocative question: a certain kind of intelligence separates humans from all other animals, but is it also leading us to annihilation? In seven quick chapters, Gregg unpacks a lot, and the book gets better as it goes along, becoming more and more thought-provoking.”—Money Control
  • "If Nietzsche Were A Narwhal is a must-read because it explains how we can save the world only if we exist in symbiosis with the thinking, feeling creatures that have had the misfortune of sharing the planet with humans, who turn out not to be as intelligent as they believe themselves to be." —Rafia Zakaria, The Baffler
  • "In often amusing, absurd detail, Gregg demonstrates time and again why animals may have the intellectual upper hand."—The Globe and Mail
  • "[Gregg] builds his often hilarious, sometimes unsettling, case against human superiority."—Genetic Literary Project
  • "both demystifying and remarkable... will change how you look at animals, humans, and the meaning of life itself"—Next Big Idea Club
  • Justin Gregg’s witty exploration of animal intelligence is a useful guide – but there is more to human life than a search for contentedness… No one who reads Gregg’s witty and instructive book will come away without having learnt some humbling truths about themselves and their animal kin.New Statesman
  • "As a researcher, Gregg is clearly a knowledgeable guide. Unlike many academics, though, he does not allow himself to be burdened by the weight of his own knowledge and specialism… Instead, by melding science, history and philosophy, the book becomes a highly readable, and on occasion quite surprising, tour of the limits of consciousness.”—The Times
  • "[Gregg's] understanding of human and animal cognition provides real insight into how we think, why our brains have evolved to think that way, and what we might want to do about it"—Financial Times
  • “A fascinating work of popular science, Gregg explores the enormous gulf between how humans and other animals experience the world.... Accessible and insightful, it’s a thought-provoking read.”—The Observer
  • "Gregg is a brilliant communicator of complex ideas, with a writing style that is rich in both humour and detail."—The Guardian

On Sale
Aug 9, 2022
Page Count
320 pages

Justin Gregg

About the Author

Justin Gregg is a Senior Research Associate with the Dolphin Communication Project and an Adjunct Professor at St. Francis Xavier University where he lectures on animal behavior and cognition. Originally from Vermont, Justin studied the echolocation abilities of wild dolphins in Japan and The Bahamas. He currently lives in rural Nova Scotia where he writes about science and contemplates the inner lives of the crows that live near his home. 

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