Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

by Frans de Waal

Rating: ★★★★

The question is rhetorical, of course, but de Waal makes a strong case for why it needs asking. So much early work on animal intelligence seems to have been carried out in a mind-bogglingly dumb manner. Elephants were declared to fail the mirror test because they did not respond to a small mirror in which they would only have been able to see their legs; gibbons were declared not to be tool-users on the basis of a test which it was physically impossible for them to complete; cats were said to learn through reinforcement behaviour which it turns out they only display socially. Even now, the performance of apes is compared to that of human children under obviously unfair conditions which would never be accepted for other sciences. Scientists often show staggering levels of anthropocentrism for individuals who are meant to understand other species -- I particularly loved the scientist who defended the practise of using human faces to judge chimpanzees' facial recognition ability on the basis that human faces show more variation! Consistently, humans who should know much better fail to comprehend that other species perceive the world (and experimental setups) differently to them. We perhaps do not always show our trademark wisdom.

de Waal isn't an idealogical runaway. Right from the outset, he engages with charges of anthropomorphism, and alternative explanatory theories for experimental results. He does not think there is strong evidence for any non-human species having language as we now define it, and he comes down negatively on projects like Koko the gorilla, who is often paraded in the news for emotive points based on extremely scanty evidence, doing harm to real understanding of primate cognition. He views anecdotes not as conclusive proof, but as prods for inquiry, and several times returns to this point of caution regarding startling behaviours.

That said, of course the book does contain an awful lot of information on animal intelligence. Heavily this is drawn from primates and birds -- particularly the corvids and parrots -- with occasional look-ins from dogs, rats, elephants, dolphins, fish and octopuses. de Waal writes about both experimental method, underlying theory, and personal experience, describing familiar individuals' behaviour in great detail. It makes for very entertaining reading.

The underlying question of the book is really much more about humanity. It becomes evident from de Waal's outline history of animal intelligence studies that there is a raging insecurity of some sort which drives some skeptics beyond caution and into supporting far more convoluted and far-fetched theories rather than accepting the obvious inferences. Where does this come from? Mankind is, after all, evidently the dominant intelligence on the planet. Our tools far exceed the complexity of five-item kits used by chimpanzees in honey raids, even our small societies are larger than even the greatest ape troops, we routinely make plans of a duration and scope greater than the treks elephant matriarchs lead their families on to forgotten watering holes. We are certainly the winners. So why should we feel threatened to learn that chimpanzees in fact have better working memories than us, or quicker reaction times?

Mankind's ego seems to be getting in its way, here. We so identify ourselves with intelligence that we don't want to acknowledge that other species have some, or might have intellectual abilities which we lack. Yet these intelligences are fascinating, and the perspective they offer -- even if we can only ever glimpse it indirectly -- is invaluable for understanding human (and human-designed) intelligence.