"Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?"

A new book by primatologist Frans de Waal considers all the important questions

Posted Apr 26, 2016

Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal is a prolific author who has written extensively on the cognitive and emotional lives of nonhuman animals (animals). His latest book called Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is a most welcomed addition to his works and to my library (the Kindle edition can be found here). A glance at the index will show just how wide-ranging this book is.

The book's description clearly lays out the ground that de Waal covers. It reads:

What separates your mind from an animal’s? Maybe you think it’s your ability to design tools, your sense of self, or your grasp of past and future―all traits that have helped us define ourselves as the planet’s preeminent species. But in recent decades, these claims have eroded, or even been disproven outright, by a revolution in the study of animal cognition. Take the way octopuses use coconut shells as tools; elephants that classify humans by age, gender, and language; or Ayumu, the young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University whose flash memory puts that of humans to shame. Based on research involving crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, bats, whales, and of course chimpanzees and bonobos, Frans de Waal explores both the scope and the depth of animal intelligence. He offers a firsthand account of how science has stood traditional behaviorism on its head by revealing how smart animals really are, and how we’ve underestimated their abilities for too long.

People often assume a cognitive ladder, from lower to higher forms, with our own intelligence at the top. But what if it is more like a bush, with cognition taking different forms that are often incomparable to ours? Would you presume yourself dumber than a squirrel because you’re less adept at recalling the locations of hundreds of buried acorns? Or would you judge your perception of your surroundings as more sophisticated than that of a echolocating bat? De Waal reviews the rise and fall of the mechanistic view of animals and opens our minds to the idea that animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed. De Waal’s landmark work will convince you to rethink everything you thought you knew about animal―and human―intelligence.

"Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?"

So, "are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?" According to de Waal, "So, yes, we are smart enough to appreciate other species, but it has required the steady hammering of our thick skull with hundreds of facts that were initially poo-pooed by science." (p. 5) He notes that he "emphasizes evolutionary continuity at the expense of traditional dualisms" as do numerous researchers and I. 

I am in de Waal's camp, especially noting that we know a lot about the cognitive and emotional lives of a wide variety of other animals, and that the literature is growing in leaps and bounds. I share what I sense is his frustration that there still are a dwindling number of researchers who continue to "slay" the fields of animal cognition and cognitive ethology by denying or ignoring what we know from solid scientific research. de Waal writes about an essay Colin Allen and I published in 1977 called "Cognitive Ethology: Slayers, Skeptics, and Proponents" in which we divided views of animal cognition at the time into three categories, namely, slayers, skeptics, and proponents. Briefly, slayers deny any possibility of success in cognitive ethology, skeptics are often difficult to categorize but they are a bit more open-minded than slayers, and proponents recognize the utility of cognitive ethological investigations and claim that there are already many successes and they see that cognitive ethological approaches have provided new and interesting data that also can inform and motivate further study. de Waal clearly has been and is a proponent. 

Another point de Waal stresses is that we are animals and that he views "human cognition as a variety of animal cognition." (p. 5) Surely from an evolutionary point of view this is a good move. The bottom line is that individuals have to do what they need to do to be card-carrying members of their species, and cross-species comparisons must be done with great care (please see "Are Pigs as Smart as Dogs and Does It Really Matter?"). And, discoveries we consider to be "surprises" aren't really all that surprising when we keep an open mind about what we are learning about cognitive capacities of other species. 

All in all, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is a thoughtful and easy read, packed with information stemming from detailed empirical research, and one of de Waal's most comparative works that goes well beyond the world of nonhuman primates with whom he's most familiar.

My non-researcher friends frequently say something like, "It'll be a good thing when science catches up with what we already know." Of course scientific research can help us along, but we already know enough not only to appreciate other animals for whom they are in terms of their cognitive and emotional capacities but also to use this information on their behalf. de Waal concludes, "Instead of making humanity the measure of all things, we need to evaluate other species by what they are. In doing so, I am sure we will discover many magic wells, including some as yet beyond our imagination." (p. 275) I couldn't agree more.


Bekoff, M and Allen, C (1997) Cognitive Ethology: Slayers, Skeptics, and Proponents. In: Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes, and Animals: The Emperor's New Clothes? (Eds) R. W. Mitchell, N. Thompson, and L. Miles. New York, State University of New York Press. 313-334.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)

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