“Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”


…This is the intriguing question biologist and ethicist Frans de Waal poses in the title of his new book, which examines humans’ perceptions of animal intelligence. Scientists have long rejected the once-popular belief in a moral hierarchy in the animal kingdom, one which frames “highly intelligent” humans as holding court over “lesser species”, from more humanlike apes and “noble” wild beasts down to lowly insects. Still,this “ladder of nature” belief remains fiercely embedded in our culture and our notions of the limits of other species’ intelligence.

Within the last hundred years, animal cognition researchers have been fiercely divided into two camps. “Scoffers” refuse to acknowledge animals can think at all, instead purely believing that behaviorism (a series of responses to various stimuli) shapes all animal actions. In contrast, “boosters” believe animals think and act with intelligence, but they lean too heavily on anecdotes and anthropomorphism rather than data in their eagerness to shed light on animal intelligence.

De Waal argues instead for the study of “evolutionary cognition,” or the measure of other species’ intelligence based on different standards from the way we would measure a human’s. This involves shifting the ways scientists have traditionally designed animal cognition studies and would likely force them to empathize with specific species to understand the parameters along which intelligence would have practical implications. For instance, squirrels don’t need to be good at counting to ten, but geospatial intelligence is critical for their understanding of where they’ve buried their nuts. Similarly, chimps have tested poorly at human facial recognition, but test very well on telling fellow chimps’ faces apart, as do sheep, who can remember up to 25 sheep faces and retain that information for two years.

In addition to focusing the discussion around how animal intelligence can be judged more effectively, de Waal cites numerous examples of animal behavior that are typically thought of as exclusive to humans. It turns out that rats may feel regret, octopi and crows create elaborate tools, whales communicate in regional dialects, and elephants have complex social hierarchies similar to our webs of Facebook friends.

Just like us, animals have shown vast capacities for cultural transmission, self-awareness, understanding others’ emotions, and imagining the future. So why do we continue to underestimate their abilities to learn from and explore the world we all share? As de Waal makes clear, animal cognition experts still have a lot to learn about the unique and profound skills of species as varied as bonobos, turtles, beavers, and bees.


Sources: Cahalan, Susannah. “We may not understand how intelligent animals are.” New York Post. 24 April 2016; Gopnik, Alison. “How animals think.” The Atlantic. May 2016 issue.

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