Book Review: “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” By Frans De Waal

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? By Frans De Waal

Veteran animal psychologist Frans De Waal of the Living Links Center at Yerkes National Primate Research Center sums his life work in this marvelous book.

His career has spanned from the era of puritanical behaviorism to the current age of “cognition”.  During this period, the anthropocentric attitude that “evolution stopped at the human head” has been in retreat, as finding after finding have demonstrated that cognition, just like all other known biological systems, is continuous across species, and has evolved in every species for survival.

As he says, “Evolutionarily speaking, it would be a true miracle if we had the fancy cognition that believe we have, while our fellow animals have none of it.” (p. 43)  After all, we expect biological systems to be “continuous”, to operate on the same principles in all species, and to have similar functions in related species.

We don’t, he remarks,  study “rat livers” and “dog livers” and “human livers”, we study “livers”, and expect to learn general principles. Mental functions are the same.  “Cognition” in natural species has evolved, and must be investigated in that context.

One of the key implications of this is that cognition in any species has evolved for survival, has adaptive advantage, and does not develop “unnecessary” features.

Just as chimps don’t know how to swim, and whales know nothing of trees, the mind of a chimp and the mind of a whale have different abilities, relevant to the way they live.

Arguing about which species is “more intelligent” is kind of missing the point, and generally impossible. Yet this is what human supremecists do when they compare humans to other animals, hoping to show our “superiority” or ‘uniqueness”. Aside from the questionable assumption that people must be “special”, the evidence surely indicates that our cognition is fundamentally similar to apes, mammals, and animals in general.

In this book, De Waal marshalls evidence for complex mental processes in primates (his specialty), other mammals (elephants, dogs, whales), birds, and mollusks. Evidence is found in studies in the wild, and, De Wall emphasizes, in laboratory experiments as well. We need both forms of data.

One implication of the evolutionary perspective (as well as simple logic) is that experiments must be designed properly to be species-appropriate. If you want to compare humans and chimps, you have to be sure that the comparison is equally relevant (and fair) to both species. So many studies have found that animals do poorly one tests compared to humans are bogus because the task is human-oriented.

One telling case described by De Waal was a study that showed that domestic dogs followed human hand signals very well, but wolves did not (p.149). The initial conclusion was something like “dogs are smarter than wolves”, which is preposterous. A reevaluation indicated that wolves are highly intelligent, but simply do not follow directions from humans. They are very good at following directions form other wolves, though.

My own interpretation: wolves who are hunted by humans, and may occasionally hunt humans, do not trust humans. They trust other wolves. In this, I would say they are being very smart to not follow the instructions of a potentially deadly human, and they are certainly at least as “intelligent” as domestic dogs (who have “solved” the human problem by moving in and taming us).

Creating species-appropriate tests can be very difficult. De Waal recounts many clever experiments that successfully create tasks appropriate for the non-human participants. He argues that careful observation in natural settings or close to natural settings is critical for understanding the abilities and interests of animals, and for designing appropriate hypotheses and expriments. But, contrary to some ethologists, he sees that controlled experiments are necessary, too, in order to pin down the most plausible facts.

He makes the interesting “evolutionary” point about these two relationships to animals:

The study of animal behavior is among the oldest human endeavors. As hunter-gatherers, our ancestors needed intimate knowledge of flora and fauna, including the habits of their prey. Hunters exercise li==minimal control: they anticipate the moves of animals and are impress by their cunning if they escape…. A more practical knowledge became necessary when our ancestors took up agriculture and began to domesticate animals for food and muscle power. Animals became dependent on us and subservient to our wiil. Instead of anticipating their moves, we began to dictate them.” (p. 224)

I was particularly fascinated by the astonishing results about the complex social behaviors of apes and other animals. In particular, many animals will cooperate with each other, and some have very complicated politics with concomitant strategic ploys and plans. These quintessentially “human” traits turn out to be found in some form in many animals—but you have to know how to look. And, importantly, not every species or even individual is the same, it depends on what problems they have evolved to solve, and how they have grown up.

This is a wonderful book, inspiring and filled with fascinating research results. It is pleasing to see the intellectual victory of his “egalitarian” view point that respects every species, and soundly rejects human exceptionalism, which has been proven to be just plain false.  (You can tell where my own theoretical inclination has always lied.)

How Smart Are Animals? Any species that has survived thousands of years is, in fact, smart enough to make it. In some cases, this really smart indeed, though not smarter than “necessary”.

One more thing comes to mind. The overall thrust of this research shows that many animals have cognitive abilities that are similar or superior to humans, including cases of convergent evolution (where species have independently evolved similar mental functions). Human cognition, presumably including language and “consciousness” most likely evolved from ancestors with similar or at least “precursor” abilities. We don’t know how this evolution happened, nor do we have much idea what selection might have favored our cognitive abilities (though living in cooperative groups is certainly one such selective pressure).  It seems to me that this should be a rather urgent question for psychology, no?

Thinking further,  what do these findings tell us about machine intelligence? For more than half a century, humans have been whacking away at the problem, trying to create machines with a variety of human and superhuman mental powers. This quest has proved more difficult that originally hoped, and recent successes have often been in forms that mimic the function but not the mechanism of human abilities (such as probabilistic language recognition, and artificial “neural” nets). A ha! Convergent evolution!

But do we really know what we are doing? Probably not, because we don’t really understand the “components” of human (and animal) cognition, nor how they evolved.

For that matter, cognition clearly evolved in the context of evolving physical bodies, not in an isolated brain-in-a-jar. And for many cases, cognition evolved in social populations of organisms.

In this context, evolutionary approaches such as evolving robots and even genetic algorithms would seem to be on the right track. But even these cases are “evolving” isolated components, which isn’t likely to be the same as natural evolution.

But wouldn’t it be cool if we could figure out why different species evolved particular cognitive abilities (assuming we can even understand what “cognitive ability” means)? What if we had algorithms that, with the right parameters, generated faithful simulations of brains of chimps, humans, corvids, elephants, and whales? This would be a true model and theory of cognitive evolution, and it would let us create whatever “artificial intelligence” we wanted.

Phew! I wandered rather far afield! I think Sensei De Waal has inspired me to think deep and far. Can I say anything more complimentary?

  1. Frans De Waal, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.


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