Book Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal (2017)

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Review 2.17

 

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. [Source]

Last year I read Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist, which asked whether or not animals are capable of demonstrating selflessness and empathy towards themselves and towards us. I wasn’t a huge fan of that book, partially because anyone who has spent even a small amount of time observing the animal world will tell you that the answer is a resounding “Duh”.

I was unaware at the time that there is a surprising amount of resistance to the idea of altruism in the animal kingdom. For decades the idea of true animal awareness was laughed out of universities and scientific journals. Man, it seems, needs to maintain a moral superiority over morality itself.

In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, de Waal begins by lambasting his fellow scientists in a highly informative and highly enjoyable tirade against modern testing methods. He lists study after study designed to test the difference in cognitive abilities between toddlers and apes that failed, not due a fault of intelligence on behalf of the ape, but by unfair testing standards. For example, toddlers were tested while sitting on their mothers lap in a warm and comfortable environment, with scientists there to reassure them. The apes were alone in a steel cage, with no explanation of the test or comfort from the testers. Until recent years it was considered unprofessional even to give personal names to the “test subjects”.

De Waal is a passionate advocate for animal rights. After thoroughly beating his colleagues about the head in the first part of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he then begins giving case study after case study of animals that not only rivaled our own intelligence, but often surpassed it.

My favorite thing about this book is that it is not ape-centric. We have long ago learned to recognize a thinking mind behind the eyes of a chimpanzee, an orangutan, or a gorilla. But what about a crow? Any pet owner will gush about how smart their dog is, but is can their intelligence be measured using any kind of objective scale that we understand? Cats, elephants, dolphins, and monkeys all get their place in this book, as well as less “traditionally” intelligent animal such as cuttlefish. I loved the section on the octopus, which is my favorite animal to show off to my science students.

in The Bonobo and the Atheist, I felt that de Waal struggled to stay on topic. He would give a few interesting anecdotes about the animal world, and then pause for a discussion on medieval art, or the rise of atheism. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is more tightly edited, and jumps merrily from subject to subject while maintaining the central theme that animals are capable of more than we ever thought possible.

I love animals. I love learning interesting things about animals. If you love learning interesting things about animals, you will enjoy this book.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Sean Runnette and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

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