We love to compare the “intelligence” of various animals to that of humans, Frans de Waal notes: This chimp can count like a person, that parrot can talk like one. But de Waal, a professor of primate behavior in the psychology department at Emory University, thinks this anthropomorphic point of view is outdated, and he makes an entertaining, convincing case for assessing each species’s intelligence on its own terms.
His new book puts it this way: It’s unfair to ask whether a squirrel can count to 10 if squirrel life doesn’t require counting. It does, however, require remembering where hundreds of nuts were hidden, and the squirrel totally aces that — while you probably forget where you parked your car.
De Waal, author of several books on primates and one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people” in 2007, is full of anecdotes about animal intelligence. Here’s how killer whales hunt off the Antarctic Peninsula: A group of orcas will spot a seal on a sizable ice floe near land. Several of them work together — and it’s hard work, he notes — to reposition the floe into open water. Then four or five line up side by side and “rapidly swim in perfect unison toward the floe, creating a huge wave that washes off the unlucky seal.” Impressive. But the punch line’s even better: A lot of the time, the whales just release the seal — and scientists have even seen them put one back on a different ice floe. Orca humor? Practical joke?
Lots of animals can recognize photographs of specific faces in their own species, de Waal reports, and crows can recognize — and develop opinions about — individual humans. One biologist in Seattle has captured so many crows for research that crows divebomb him when they see him outdoors. (He had his aides wear Halloween masks, but the crows learned to recognized those, too.)
And let’s talk about dogs. De Waal knows some folks who own an Afghan hound and were “outraged” when the breed was ranked dead last in intelligence. “My insulted friends argued that the only reason Afghans were considered dimwitted is that they are independent minded, stubborn.” The ranking wasn’t about brains, the newspaper said, but obedience. Owners of border collies (No. 1) may disagree.
The book is not only full of information and thought-provoking, it’s also a lot of fun to read. Its title is “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” — and the author certainly is.