Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
By Frans de Waal
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
352 pp. $16.95 (paperback).

As the adoring owner of two mutts, I’m often impressed by their apparent intelligence. They seem perfectly capable of telling me when they want to eat, or go potty, or play. And although neither is a match for Chaser, the border collie who remembers the names of more than one thousand toys and can retrieve them on command, they do seem able to differentiate between “get the bug” and “get the bee.”

Yet, as the 2017 book by Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal shows, the significance of such behaviors has been (and is still being) hotly debated by scientists. For instance, scientists have both supported and denigrated the idea that animals have intentions—whether to lure owners such as me into a game of fetch, or into “accidentally” dropping some food—or anything cognitively complex enough to be called “intelligence.”

In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, de Waal combines his vast knowledge of the history of behavioral and cognitive science with findings from recent lab and field work and stories accumulated during a career of more than forty years into a flowing, enjoyable, enlightening book on animal—including human—intelligence.

“For most of the last century, science was overly cautious and skeptical about the intelligence of animals,” he writes. “Attributing intentions and emotions to animals was seen as naïve ‘folk’ nonsense” (3–4). Thus, as de Waal shows, answering the question “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?” is even more complex than one might at first think. “In trying to find out at what mental level other species operate,” he writes, “the real challenge comes not just from the animals themselves but also from within us. Human attitudes, creativity, and imagination are very much part of the story” (3).

And de Waal’s story is rich in history. He observes that after a lifetime of meticulous observation and thought, evolution theorist Charles Darwin held that many animals have minds, and that like all other capacities, consciousness evolved gradually.

However, Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-conceiver of the theory of natural selection, held that human consciousness cannot be explained by evolution. De Waal dubs this view “neo-creationism,” explaining, “Its central tenet is that we descend from the apes in body but not in mind. Without saying so explicitly, it assumes that evolution stopped at the human head.” He adds, “Obviously, no modern scholar would dare mention a divine spark, let alone special creation, but the religious background of this position is hard to deny” (122).

De Waal holds that in one form or another, most 20th-century animal researchers swallowed whole the corollary and essentially Cartesian view that animals are “dumb automatons.” Scientists in the behaviorist school studied animals in cages, viewing them as “stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment.” Their contemporaries, ethologists, studied animals in their natural environments but also viewed them “as robots genetically endowed with useful instincts” (4). Anyone who expressed interest in the internal lives of animals was disparaged as “anthropomorphic, romantic, or unscientific” (4). By and large, scientists held that the only point of comparing humans and animals was to confirm human superiority.

De Waal relishes pointing out the consequences of these mistakes. For instance, many behaviorists were unfamiliar with the species they studied, and they were unable to differentiate between learned behavior (taught by conditioning) and species-typical behavior (behavior that is widespread and characteristic of a species). For instance, in 1898, a group of scientists led by Edward Thorndike concluded that by caging cats and leaving scraps of fish just outside their cages, scientists had taught all the cats in the experiment to rub against their cages in the same way, which enabled them to move a latch and escape. Decades later, scientists repeated the experiment without the fish, demonstrating something that any cat owner knows.

The investigators showed that the food reward was not needed: the only meaningful factor was the presence of friendly people. Without training, every caged cat that saw a human observer rubbed its head, flank, and tail against the latch and got out of the cage. Left alone, however, the cats were unable to escape, since they never performed any rubbing. (21)

While the behaviorist school reigned, a handful of scientists—driven not by foregone conclusions but by sincere curiosity about the mental capacities of animals—challenged mechanistic explanations of animal behavior and followed the evidence. De Waal dwells on pioneers such as Karl von Frisch, who “discovered that honeybees use a waggle dance to communicate distant food locations” (11); Konrad Lorenz, “the maestro of observation” who “urged us to grasp the whole animal before zooming in on its various parts” (19); and Niko Tinbergen, who de Waal says “best spelled out the ethological agenda and turned the field into a respectable science” (41).

These and a few other scientists opened the door for the eventual development of a new approach to the study of animal cognition. De Waal calls this relatively new discipline “evolutionary cognition,” and he weaves together studies and stories from its practitioners, showing that many animals appear to operate on far higher cognitive levels than previous generations of scientists thought possible.

Among the many fascinating discoveries that de Waal covers are those of elephants using tools, recognizing their reflections in mirrors, and distinguishing between the speech patterns of violent and nonviolent tribes; dolphins determining when they need more information to complete a task, putting themselves at risk to save pod mates, and recognizing each other’s distinctive calls after years of separation; as well as chimpanzees, corvids (crows and their relatives), octopuses, and even paper wasps demonstrating the ability to recognize faces. He also relays fascinating stories of cooperation between species. For instance:

When whaling still occurred around Twofold Bay, in Australia, orcas would approach the whaling station to perform conspicuous breaching and lobtailing that served to announce the arrival of a humpback whale. They would herd the large whale into shallow waters close to a whaling vessel, allowing the whalers to harpoon the harassed leviathan. Once the whale was killed, the orcas would be given one day to consume their preferred delicacy—its tongue and lips—after which the whalers would collect their prize. (196)

De Waal reminds us that “humans are animals,” and he writes, “We’re not comparing two separate categories of intelligence, therefore, but rather are considering variation within a single one” (5). In light of the history he exposes, de Waal’s emphasis on an integrated, gradualist view of cognition appears justified.

At some points, however, he seems willing to push evolutionary gradualism to the point of blurring an important distinction. Delighted by incredible discoveries of animal intelligence, he exclaims, “Nothing is off limits anymore,” in explaining the capacities of other animals—“not even the rationality that was once considered humanity’s trademark” (4–5). It’s true that some animals are not only conscious and goal-directed but also intelligent. But, the purpose of the concept “rationality” is to distinguish conceptual-level consciousness from nonconceptual-level consciousness. Fortunately, de Waal does make a similar distinction in a few places:

You won’t often hear me say something like this, but I consider us the only linguistic species. We honestly have no evidence for symbolic communication, equally rich and multifunctional as ours, outside our species. It seems to be our own magic well, something we are exceptionally good at. (106)

At other points, de Waal prioritizes the need for clear distinctions between types of cognition. Unfortunately, at points in this discussion he misrepresents Aristotle by confusing some of his ideas with reinterpretations by Christian theologians.1 St. Augustine and later scholastics co-opted Aristotelian ideas, mangling them in their attempts to support religious dogma. Seemingly unaware of this, de Waal writes:

Every species deals flexibly with the environment and develops solutions to the problems it poses. Each one does it differently. We had better use the plural to refer to their capacities, therefore, and speak of intelligences and cognitions. This will help us avoid comparing cognition on a single scale modeled after Aristotle’s scala naturae, which runs from God, the angels, and humans at the top, downward to other mammals, birds, fish, insects, and mollusks at the bottom. Comparisons up and down this vast ladder have been a popular pastime of cognitive science, but I cannot think of a single profound insight it has yielded.2 (12)

In his History of Animals and On the Parts of Animals, Aristotle did classify organisms hierarchically using a system of genus and differentia, which influenced, among others, Charles Darwin. This system—which did not include gods or angels—facilitated not only differentiation but also integration. It helped investigators clearly understand similarities and differences between organisms, enabling them to achieve an integrated view of different species as variations of life itself. If Aristotle’s biological work was not absolutely necessary to the development of de Waal’s own field of evolutionary cognition, it was at least incredibly helpful.

Nonetheless, de Waal achieves an important synthesis. In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he brings history, philosophy, and science to bear on this pregnant question. He manages to explain his subject in a way that anyone can understand and enjoy. And what he says of the field of animal behavior more generally is true of his book. It “remains endlessly fascinating, since behavior is, as the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz put it, the liveliest aspect of all that lives” (6).


1. I’d like to thank Carrie-Ann Biondi for her insight on the following points relating to Aristotle and his ideas on biology.

2. Note the idea that de Waal attributes to Aristotle, the scala naturae, is Latin—not Greek—for “ladder of being.” First, Neoplatonists co-opted Aristotle’s system, putting Plato’s disembodied “perfect forms” at the top, which St. Augustine later supplanted with the God of Christianity, adding angels and such. Given these corruptions, it’s no wonder that de Waal “cannot think of a single profound insight it has yielded.”

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