Barbara J. King is chancellor professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary, is the author of the forthcoming book “Personalities on the Plate: The Minds and Lives of Animals we Eat.”
Humans have something of a superiority complex. We tend to see ourselves as more clever and complicated than other animals. But how can we be so sure?
In his compelling new book, the renowned primatologist Frans de Waal chips away at our hubristic assumption. As he asks in his provocative title: “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”
The answer is yes, but only if we shed some misconceptions. “Attributing intentions and emotions to animals was seen as naive ‘folk’ nonsense,” de Waal writes. But increasingly, thanks to the work of scientists like de Waal himself, we now recognize that animals exhibit many of the attributes once thought to be exclusive to humans. De Waal’s study of apes and monkeys has, for example, contributed fundamentally to an understanding that our closest living relatives strategically scheme, plan and remember, and express caring and compassion for friends and relatives.
In his book, de Waal delves into research illuminating the intelligence not only of primates but also of birds, elephants, dolphins and whales. Take cooperation: Human cooperation is indeed unique in its degree of organization and scale, de Waal acknowledges, but many animals also are smart enough to realize the benefits of purposefully working together. Orcas (a type of dolphin also known as killer whales) in the Antarctic Peninsula, for example, create a team of four to five to make waves that wash seals right into the orcas’ mouths. Asian elephants exquisitely synchronize their body movements to carry a log in an assigned work task, a coordination so fine that de Waal says they shift from “an I identity” to “a we identity.” When capuchin monkeys are tested to see if they can move a heavy box, the animals succeed only if they can see each other, and they prefer partners who share the prize.
“We have the power to analyze and explore the world around us,” de Waal notes, “yet panic as soon as the evidence threatens to violate our expectations.” We may really not expect birds — our more distant evolutionary relatives — to be smart, savvy animals. But according to de Waal, they surely are. The jackdaws that he raised as a college student in the Netherlands, for example, showed a grasp of what’s called object permanence: When he hid a small object under a pillow or behind a flower pot, the birds would search it out; they had grasped the idea that an object continues to exist even when it goes out of sight. The famous African grey parrot Alex showed the world that he could answer, in simple speech, questions about objects that required him to think about multiple factors at once. Presented with two keys, one of green plastic and the other of metal, and asked “What is different?,” Alex answered, “Color.”
De Waal’s book is both instructive and opinionated. Even the way scientific experiments are set up, he says, may contribute to this problem of our species’ arrogance. De Waal forcefully contrasts the ways children and apes are treated in experiments meant to tease apart their cognitive abilities. Children perch comfortably side by side on a rug, or even in parents’ laps, and are spoken to warmly by an experimenter in their own language. The apes are kept behind bars and must cope across species lines. As a result, de Waal declares, there’s no way to separate genuine cognitive differences from methodological ones.
But the book is far from a polemic. An excellent mix of experimental evidence and personal anecdote makes it as fun to read as it is informative. Describing an experiment with chimpanzees at his Living Links laboratory at Emory University in Atlanta, de Waal emphasizes that the animals choose whether to participate in the problems and tasks they are invited to solve. “Sometimes I feel like a motivational speaker,” he wryly notes, “such as when Peony, one of our oldest females, ignored a task that we had set up for her. For twenty minutes, she lay in the corner. I sat down right next to her and told her, in a calm voice, that I didn’t have all day and it would be great if she would get going.” Peony obliged. From this, de Waal doesn’t infer that the ape understood his specific words but instead that she grasped the sense of what he wanted.
Fans of de Waal’s writing will recognize anecdotes recycled from his earlier work. Again, for instance, we meet the capuchin monkeys who stunned de Waal’s team when they showed their sensitivity to unfairness by rejecting the cucumber rewards offered them — after they noticed their monkey friends getting higher-quality grapes instead. This occasional repetition is more easily forgiven than de Waal’s description of octopuses as “loners” with no interactions “except as rivals, mates, predators, and prey.” De Waal’s own work has shown conclusively that the playing out of those very roles may involve quite sophisticated socializing. An appreciation of octopus maternal egg-caretaking and social signaling would have added further support to his theme that we can recognize animal intelligence once we take a close look.
De Waal concludes with a welcome plea: “We urgently need a bottom-up view that focuses on the building blocks of cognition” — and on emotion too, he adds. Science that is well-informed by evolutionary theory of our connection to other animals — in both body and mind — demands nothing less.
By Frans de Waal
W.W. Norton. 340 pp. $27.95