I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
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.
Instead of making humanity the measure of all things, we need to evaluate other species by what they are.
The field of animal cognition needs to take a lesson from the field of human education—the multiple intelligence model. Not every student will be good at every part of the curriculum, but it’s a rare person who isn’t talented at anything! Physical talent in sports or a love and understanding of nature count as kinds of intelligence, acknowledging that the academic subjects are not necessarily the be all and end all.
De Waal writes clearly and engagingly about the history of the study of animal intelligence, pointing out the many prejudices that humans bring to this endeavour. Human subjects are tested by a member of their own species and in surroundings that they are comfortable in. Animal subjects are being tested by a member of another species (whom they are not necessarily interested in) and in a captive setting that adds to the stress of the situation. Ask any university student about the stress of exams and they will tell you that it is not an ideal way to take tests.
He points out that these studies are hampered by the human tendency to try to set ourselves outside the animal world, to set a barrier between us and the rest of nature. He also discusses our relationship with the apes, especially our close link to the two chimpanzee species. Being very hierarchically focused, like chimps are, we spend a lot of time trying to set ourselves at the top of our perceived hierarchy of nature. We truly need to let go of this need to be superior and to evaluate other species according to their own talents.
When I was a volunteer nature educator, I was often asked about animals, “How smart are they?” I guess people were hoping to feel superior to other species. My answer was always, “Just as smart as they need to be to survive.” Each species is adapted to its own environmental niche and is expert at living there.
I would recommend Mr. de Waal’s books to anyone interested in animal cognition or in ape studies in general.