Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?

by stephenpalmersf

… by Frans De Waal.

In this, his most recent book of many on the subject of animal intelligence and primate intelligence in particular, the noted researcher and author Frans De Waal pens a passionate defence of animal cognition and sends many well-deserved rockets at those who try to find defining lines between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom.

I liked this book a lot, but I do have reservations about it. The author is a psychology professor and a director of the Yerkes Primate Research Centre, with a long back catalogue of works discussing animal intelligence… or, rather, cognition.

The difference between intelligence and cognition is one of the main foundations of this excellent book. De Waal uses a lot of evidence from his own wide-ranging research, the work of other researchers and some anecdotal evidence in making the case for animals as cognitive creatures. He makes a number of essential points in the earlier parts of the book, in particular pointing out the extraordinary pro-human bias (both deliberate and accidental) followed by too many past and present researchers. His plea is for animal cognition to be understood in an evolutionary perspective. Thus, for instance, it is pointless testing elephant self-awareness with mirrors too small for them to use – just one of a host of points he makes to show how human researchers have a strong bias towards themselves.

Other points hit home just as hard. De Waal is of the opinion that there is no sudden dividing line between human cognition and animal cognition – it’s all a matter of degree. I don’t entirely agree with him there, but the point is perfectly valid. Why should cognition, and ultimately consciousness suddenly appear in evolution when nothing else has? This “keep your hands off the mind” attitude is in fact a result of the assumption that human beings are special in some way, and De Waal is in no doubt that such attitudes are the result of a couple of thousand years of cultural indoctrination.

De Waal is particularly good in this book on how human researchers are constantly baffled by how animals don’t “get” their trials and experiments, putting down the results to animal stupidity. But this is most cases is because the experiments have been designed from a human point of view, not that of the animal in question. De Waal gives many excellent examples here.

I do have a few reservations about this otherwise superb book. De Waal is notably reluctant to discuss the issue of consciousness, except as a small part of one chapter. It could be that the book was not the right place for such a discussion, but I think it is a major lack. Also, De Waal is hazy in some of his evidence and conclusions. In the chapter on time, he discusses various possible instances of animals perceiving a flow of time, the vast majority of which could just as easily be explained as abstract links made without a sense of time. But the one piece of evidence which does show it – that chimps start off earlier in the morning to reach special fig trees if they have camped overnight further away – is hardly remarked upon. Our sense of time is the conscious perception of the order of real-world events, and so a troupe of chimps grasping that there is more space and therefore time to take account of the further away they are from the fig trees is a clear indicator. I don’t think De Waal understood this.

I was also struck by the almost total lack of discussion in the book of death and death rituals in animal behaviour. Given that in human evolution the perception of death and subsequent cultural death rituals came before the cultural explosion of 40,000 years ago, this is a striking omission. I suspect De Waal is personally skewed away from any concept of human specialness, towards a kind of cognitive continuum. This, I think, means he did not want to present too much evidence against his case.

Overall though, this is a fascinating, welcome and very thought-provoking book. I think its author has positioned himself as a champion of animal cognition, and this also is welcome and laudable, but I think he is reluctant to admit that human cognition is most likely of a different order to animal cognition. However, in saying that, I have committed the same error as thousands of others in lumping together “animals” as if they were one great bland entity. They are not. So let’s say this. Human beings are different in some way to those animals – chimps, bonobo, elephants, corvids, dolphins and whales – who are closest to us on the cognitive scale. Whether that difference is qualitative or quantitative is a moot point – and one which urgently needs investigation.

de waal