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Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

By Frans de Waal

–Review by Paula Jones

When I was a young teacher, my third grade class began a science unit on animals. For homework I assigned a simple worksheet aimed at helping students understand the difference between plants and animals. Fifty items were listed. The children were asked to mark each item as either a plant or animal. The word human was included on the list. The next day, a group of parents showed up at school and adamantly informed me that humans were neither plants nor animals and should never have been included on the list. No amount of reasoning could convince them otherwise.

We humans possess a sense of specialness that has consistently led us to deny our membership in the animal kingdom. No one does a better job of helping us come to terms with our own creatureliness than Frans de Waal, Emory University Professor of Psychology and director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. In his latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, de Waal examines just how special other animals are, allowing us to take a look at how orangutans, chimpanzees, elephants, crows, orcas, octopuses, and many other animals ‘think.’ His findings and research offer new and exciting understandings of animal behavior and intelligence.

Over the ages we humans have claimed certain characteristics as exclusively ours, traits such as language, tool making, self-recognition, empathy, culture making, and cooperative behavior. It was assumed that other animals were lesser beings because they did not exhibit the same traits. Following Francine Patterson’s 1978 publications concerning Koko the gorilla’s use of sign language, serious scientist began to question the use of language as being a solely human trait. De Wall explores this trait further, demonstrating that many animals use specific sounds to communicate precise messages. We all understand that when a cat hisses, it is saying, “Back off.” Chimpanzees also have different vocalizations with specific meanings for other chimpanzees, meanings such as “Danger!” “I’ve found food,” or “I submit.” Birds, especially members of the corvid family (crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, and magpies) have an even more complex set of vocalizations. Among other things, ravens warn each other about a predator’s approach by clucking, trill at each other when preparing to fight for a better feeding spot on a carcass, use another sound to beg for mercy from a stronger raven, and use a different call to direct the attention of another raven to a specific object. Both jays and crows call each other together and hold noisy funerals when one of their kind is discovered dead. (An example of this behavior can be seen at Orcas display exceptionally coordinated group behavior and social interaction, using both vocalized and non-vocalized cues. Amazingly each pod has it’s own distinctive ‘accent,’ making it possible for an orca to distinguish between multiple pods by sound alone. Such rich vocabularies allow social animals to coordinate daily activities. We now know that animals communicate with each other with both vocalizations and gestures, each with its own language system, though none with a system as complex as that of humans.

Traditionally, the intelligence of other species has been measured against the intelligence of humans. De Waal refuses to do so because that only shows what animals cannot do. He strives instead to reveal what they can do. A squirrel may not be as ‘smart’ as a human––but is a human as smart as a squirrel? Could a human remember the location of nuts hidden months before in a thousand different places? De Waal insists on assessing his animals using tests that are both humane and species-appropriate, tests that humans may or may not be able to pass.

An astounding example of this was found when researchers at Kyoto University tested memory in a group of chimpanzees. Using the numerals 1 through 10, ten-numbers sequences were flashed on a computer screen for a few seconds. The chimps’ task was to recreate the sequence by typing the numerals in the same order on their own computer (and yes, the chimps were startlingly good at learning to use a computer). All the chimps did well at the task, but one chimp put every other chimp to shame. As a matter of fact, he put ever human to shame. He could recreate the exact sequence of numbers every time––even when they were flashed up for only a fraction of a second! In every instance, he was able to duplicate the sequence faster than and more accurately than humans taking the same test. Researchers were incredulous. De Waal observes, “It violated the dictum that, without exception, tests of intelligence ought to confirm human superiority.”

Insisting that every creature develops the intelligence it needs for it’s own environment, he proposes that animals display their intelligence by understanding their own environment, their social world, and their own abilities, and then exploiting them, even making innovations in how their resources are used. Both chimpanzees and New Caledonian crows do this by fashioning tools out of tree branches to dig for termites (a favorite food). Chimps in Gabon use five different self-invented tools in sequence to steal honey from beehives. Octopuses also use tools, carrying coconut shells around to use as portable hiding places from which they can spring to capture prey. (See amazing footage of this at A band of 25 chimpanzees in a Dutch zoo unquestionably demonstrated reasoning ability and cooperative behavior when they worked together to lift and prop a large fallen tree against the fence confining them, used it to get over the electric fence at the top of the enclosure, and after escaping, raided the zoos restaurant.

De Waal uses both objective laboratory research and subjective accounts to convincingly argue that animals are much more than stimulus-response creatures driven by instinct. The stories he tells are delightful and permeate the pages of the book. Of particular interest are his lengthy descriptions of the interactions of his chimpanzee subjects who enforce a strict caste culture. Their politics maneuvers can be as Machiavellian as those in the human world. Ambition is endemic; alliances are formed; kings are overthrown; and occasional love connections between those of unlike status are guardedly secretive so as not to upset the ruling caste. The chimps even demand equal pay for equal work! When one chimp got a cucumber for performing a task, and another got a banana for performing the same task, the first monkey was so angry that he proceeded to throw the cucumber at the experimenter and then throw a tantrum.

De Waal never tries to persuade the reader that humans are not different. Instead, he underlines the fact that human cognition is one variety of animal cognition, persuasively maintaining that the difference between the intelligence of humans and other animals is one of degree, not of kind. He confirms that animals exhibit a range of emotions––from joy to fear to sadness to excitement to anger to empathy. They are self-aware and cooperate to reach shared goals. This being so, what new ethical questions do humans need to start seriously asking themselves?

De Waals title asks an important question: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? He also answers that question writing, “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.”

As followers of Jesus, it’s time to ask other questions: How are we stewarding intelligent life on this planet? Are we protecting those who are in some ways weaker than we are? Are we doing our best to ensure they will continue to have a hospitable habitat in the future? Are we killing them unnecessarily for sport? Are our factory farms as inhumane as they appear to be? For our own amusement are we keeping social animals like primates and orcas in isolated conditions, depriving them of both mental stimulation and interaction with others of their species? Are we taking animal abuse seriously enough to enact strong laws to prevent it? And speaking of animals, when Jesus finally says, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” will we find ourselves among the sheep or the goats?