2016 Review #4 Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal


This is a depressing book. No, let me correct that. This is an uplifting book, a book to make you wonder and rejoice at the richness and diversity of the natural world and all its inhabitants. What is depressing is that it needed to be written.

It is almost 150 years since Darwin wrote: ‘The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.’ For most of that 150 years we have gone backwards, denying the insights of the 19th century and seeking to defend human exceptionalism, the idea that there is a total disconnect between us and the remainder of the animal kingdom. Why should that be? Why should we dislike the idea of animal intelligence and kinship to us, rather than rejoicing in it? One of our abiding preoccupations is with the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence, and yet we seek to denigrate intelligence when it is found in other species on our own planet.

‘There are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in your philosophy’, as Hamlet said to Horatio. Especially when your philosophy is that of the human exceptionalist, determined to preserve human uniqueness and superiority just as Europeans once sought to preserve racial superiority. This kind of thinking de Waal brands ‘neo-creationist’, which was an idea that had struck me before I came across it in his book. The reality is that there is no saltationist divide between human intellectual powers and those of other creatures. As with all products of evolution, there are only differences of degree.

What is irksome is that, as with many philosophical disputes, differences of opinion are often based in semantics. In 2014 I was privileged to chair a debate at the Battle of Ideas between Nicky Clayton, a leading ethologist and expert in the study of scrub jays (whose work is quoted by de Waal) and Helene Guldberg, author of ‘Just Another Ape?’ (also quoted by de Waal).

The topic was animal cognition and on the surface the two speakers seemed to be on diametrically opposed sides, the human exceptionalist versus the explorer of animal intelligence. What emerged, however, was rather different. Helene was willing to concede all kinds of abilities to animals, while wishing to preserve a clear sense that modern humans are different to all other species, as indeed they are. Nicky was able to comment on current understanding of animal cognition from a lifetime of rigorous scientific experimentation, but was nevertheless cautious. She not only wanted to avoid ‘consciousness’, a word fraught with contentiousness for our own species as well as for others, she was insistent on using the phrase ‘episodic-like memories’ for the faculties of the birds she was studying. With a scientist’s care, she would not claim that birds have memories in the same way humans do. All she would demonstrate is that their abilities are analogous. Through nuanced debate, Helene and Nicky made it apparent that there is no need for conflict. They believed pretty much the same things. (the recording of this debate can be found at http://www.battleofideas.org.uk/2014/session_detail/8981)

This is why de Waal’s book is depressing, because there should be no need for it. He spends much of the time recounting the history of opposition to ideas of animal intelligence, and much of the battleground is semantic. Consciousness, cognition, thought, theory of mind, memory, imitation, culture; these and a raft of other words are the grounds for argument. He demonstrates with great clarity that human exceptionalists have sought to deny animals’ abilities through denying them faculties that they claim to be exclusively human. As contrary evidence mounts, they have to contest or re-define terms in order to maintain the exclusions. This has been so ever since Louis Leakey’s famous comment on Jane Goodall’s demonstration that chimpanzees are toolmakers (a classic ‘exclusively’ human ability): ‘they must accept chimpanzees as man, they must redefine man, or they must redefine tools.’

The battle has been long and is far from over. De Waal is optimistic, because the explosion in the amount of research in recent decades, advances in disciplines like neuroscience, and evidence from more and more diverse fields (plant intelligence, anyone?) are close to proving conclusively that cognition varies in degree throughout the animal kingdom, but not in kind. Darwin, as so often, was right. It is a similar optimism to that expressed by SETI researchers, with the wealth of recently discovered exoplanets meaning that the search for extra-terrestrial life has much higher hopes of success. There may not be extra-terrestrial intelligence of the advanced kind beloved by sci-fi fans, but we may soon prove conclusively that humanity is not alone in the universe, just as it is not alone on Earth.

The neo-creationists are not done yet. Just as there are millions of people who still believe in biblical creationism, millions believe that homo sapiens is different in kind to all other species. Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? De Waal’s answer: ‘Yes, but you’d never have guessed.’