This book is a study of two fascinating concepts: animal intelligence and human arrogance. Prominent biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal shares insights into animal cognition interspersed with mini-rants about the skepticism that people, even scientists, express at the thought of non-human animals displaying something that we might call intelligence. After reading this book, I’m inclined to suggest a new title: Are We Humble Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
At the heart of the skepticism is human beings’ desire to understand “what it means to be human,” as if our metaphysical struggles are relevant to the measure of intelligence in the 40,000 other vertebrate species on the planet. I say vertebrate, but even that is rather closed-minded, as it eliminates the octopus, a creature with a 65-million-neuron brain and a decentralized nervous system, an animal so unique it would be impossible to compare it meaningfully with humans or any other land mammal. At any rate, whenever people come to a conclusion about “what it means to be human,” it’s just a matter of time before we discover that a crow, or a dolphin, or another primate can perform the same feat, forcing us to move the goal post so that we can continue to feel special.
An example of this is the concept of self-awareness, which is typically measured by the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror. This is tested by putting a mark on the forehead of a tranquilized animal and then showing it a mirror when it awakes. If the animal, upon seeing its reflection, touches its forehead, recognizing itself as the image in the mirror, it’s deemed to be self-aware. For a long time, only humans and some of the great apes could pass the mirror test, leading scientists to proclaim that other creatures had no self-awareness. As de Waal points out, this is a ridiculous leap in logic. Every animal has to have some sense of itself in terms of its surroundings; for example, a monkey in a tree has to know where its body ends and how it will interact with a branch it intends to reach for or land on. Without some awareness of “self,” it couldn’t survive. Additionally, animals like bats and dolphins are able to distinguish the echoes of their own vocalizations from the sounds made by others. A bat may not be able to pass the mirror test, but it recognizes its own noises. Isn’t that self-awareness? Incidentally, Asian elephants and dolphins have also been shown to recognize their reflection in a mirror, nulling the mirror test as proof of primate uniqueness.
Even with our closest relatives, humans are protective of our specialness and rebel against anything that threatens it. In 2007, a chimpanzee named Ayumu astounded scientists with his memory. Ayumu was trained on a touchscreen to tap the numbers 1 through 9 in the correct order. The numbers appeared at random locations on the screen and changed to white squares as soon as he started tapping. Ayumu showed remarkable proficiency in his ability to remember the right order. Reducing the amount of time the numbers appeared on the screen didn’t hinder his performance either. He has been able to memorize up to 9 numbers with 80% accuracy, something no human has been able to match. You can see a demonstration of the study here.
The level of dismay that Ayumu’s skill caused among scientists was telling. As de Waal writes, “. . .this ape has already violated the dictum that, without exception, tests of intelligence ought to confirm human superiority.” Humans are so insecure that we can’t handle our closest living relatives being better than us at one specific mental task without calling foul and trying to find a flaw in the experiment.
Speaking of flawed experiments, the manner in which tests are performed on animals are often slanted in humans’ favor. Chimp cognition is often tested against children; however, the test parameters are not always equal. Chimps are often kept behind a barrier, whereas children are held on their parents’ laps, allowing them to pick up on unintentional cues from the parents. Such disparities in testing would be unacceptable if we were comparing two other similar species, like mice and rats.
De Waal describes many other compelling concepts, such as whether animals have insight, the relationship between language and thought, and even the role of metacognition, which is literally thinking about thinking. For me, though, the most interesting question this book raises is about humans: Why is it so important for us to feel superior to every other species in every aspect of intelligence? De Waal doesn’t have an answer for this, but it seems to me that the more we try to deny the abilities of other species, the more we demonstrate our own intellectual shortcomings.