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Conversation: Frans de Waal

One of the ‘great minds of science’ discusses how research continues to disprove preconceived notions of animal intelligence

Dr. Frans de Waal is a biologist and primatologist known for his work on the behavior and social intelligence of primates. His research has been published in hundreds of peer reviewed scientific journals, and his best-selling books — including Chimpanzee Politics (1982), Our Inner Ape (2005),  The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013) — which draw parallels between primate and human behavior — have popularized him as one of the world’s foremost experts on animal intelligence. In 2007, Time magazine listed him as one of the worlds’ most influential people today, and in 2011, Discover magazine listed him among 47 (all time) Great Minds of Science.

Frans de Waal Photo by Peter on Flickr

De Wall is the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, in Atlanta, Georgia and a professor at Emory University’s psychology department. His latest book, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? discusses the history of animal behavior and cognition studies at a time when scientists are beginning to study animal cognition in tandem with human cognition rather than in comparison to one another.

In the book, De Waal reviews the rise and fall of the view of animals as machines and shows us how animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed. He challenges our anthropocentric view of humans being at the top of the cognitive and sentience ladder. What if there is no such ladder? he asks. What if instead, this whole business is more like a bush, with cognition taking different forms that are often incomparable to ours?

I spoke with De Waal recently about his new book and the recent research involving various animals, from crows to dolphins, which continue to disprove our preconceived notions of animal intelligence. 

In your latest book, how do you resolve the question, “are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?”

The book is about animal intelligence and how we have, for a long time, underestimated animal intelligence, sort of systematically because a large number of scientists wanted to reduce everything that animals do to either instinct or to very simple learning processes that are found in rats and pigeons and many animals, but we never considered animals with large brains like elephants, apes, or dolphins. So they tried to downplay animal intelligence and all of that has changed in the last 25 years.

There has been a much longer movement than I described in my book, a much longer period of people doing cognitive studies in animals, but its only the last 25 years that we have seen a big jump in those studies, and now there’s an enormous amount of research on how intelligent animals are. 

As a society, do you feel we have the intellectual capacity to figure out and understand the extent of animal intelligence?

I think we are smart enough. I think we need to get out of our little human box, which is very much focused on let’s say language, abstract thinking and visual inputs. We humans have our own little worlds of intelligence, so to speak, so in order to understand an elephant, an octopus or a dolphin, we need to start thinking quite differently. We need to become more focused on those animals than ourselves, and not necessarily make every comparison with ourselves the most informative.

We got through all of that when we discovered echo-location in bats. That’s a system of detection that’s very hard for humans to understand, and for the longest time we had no clue that this is what was going on. People knew that bats could navigate in a dark room, but they didn’t understand how that was even possible. They thought it must be some sort of sixth sense. They had all sorts of almost supernatural explanations of what was going on. They didn’t have any idea until we started to explore high pitch vocalizations and discovered echolocation.

That’s going to be the story of many discoveries in animal intelligence, we need to step out of the human comfort zone and start thinking: what else could there be in terms of communication or perception?  That’s the only way to understand animal intelligence, and that’s why it is a big challenge. I think we are smart enough to do it, so that would be the short answer, we are smart enough, but it takes quite a bit of effort.

Given you have spent the past few decades studying emotions and intelligence in primates, what inspired you to write about this topic now?

I think, because in the last few decades, there have been so many discoveries, the general public understands that something is happening. Every week they see a new discovery in this regard. They see that crows use tools, and the recent paper that chimpanzees may have sacred rituals or at least rituals. So they see all these things coming out but they don’t know the back-story.

Really, there was a time when we were not allowed to talk about higher intelligence in animals. Until the 1980’s, I would say we weren’t even allowed to use the term “animal cognition.” Human cognition, yes, human cognition was good, but animals didn’t have cognition. Animals either had instinct or learning, and that’s all they had. But, now everything has changed, and so the book gives a sort of overview of how people used to think, how we now think, where this field is moving towards, and all the discoveries that we have to support this view.

Indigenous cultures have a deep understanding and reverence of animal emotion and intelligence. Why do you think Western culture often differs from their view in favor of asserting the belief that man is meant to dominate nature?

If people live closer to nature in smaller communities, usually they are hunters. [Such] hunters have a very different relationship with animals than farmers. They respect animals, they know how animals can escape, they know how to approach them, that animals can also be dangerous to them, so they have a more egalitarian relationship with animals, which includes understanding that animals are very smart.

So then, when we became farmers, this happened about 12,000 years ago during the agricultural revolution, we developed a very different relationship with animals. We started to dominate animals. We controlled them, and we tried to depict them as dumb. Western culture has this long tradition, also reflected in its religion, that animals are there to serve us . We are the bosses and they are our servants. We don’t have a high opinion of them and they don’t have a soul... We created this enormous distance between us and the animals, which is a distance that we need to overcome in order to understand their intelligence. That’s one of the challenges.

There’s a big prejudice in people that we humans are smart and animals are not so smart. If you underestimate animals and basically downplay everything they do and try to explain everything in very simple terms, that’s not a good basis to make discoveries about animal intelligence. That’s what’s been happening in our culture. It’s a mixture between culture and religion really, and these two are hard to distinguish. [The outlook is different in] Indigenous cultures, and also some eastern cultures. For example in Buddhism the soul can travel between you and a frog, from a frog to a cat. The soul travels around basically. Of course, that’s not the view we have in the West. Western religion and culture is particularly fond of this distinction between human and animal.

How can the recognition of animal intelligence benefit humans?

I’ve worked all my life on the intelligence of apes. Apes are very close to us, and apes are the most remarkable in terms of their intelligence, even though I would say that’s partly because we can recognize it so much easily because they have hands and binocular vision, they look like us, and they can jump and climb just like us. We find it much easier to relate to a chimpanzee than to, say, an elephant. By studying [apes] and other smart species, what often happens is that things we consider extremely complex in ourselves turn out to be actually quite a bit simpler.

For example, we do studies on fairness. Do monkeys have a sense of fairness? Do chimpanzees have a sense of fairness? People use to have very complex explanations for our sense of fairness, and after our studies we realized it’s actually quite a bit simpler, and we may be able to even find in dogs a sense of fairness.

The study of animal intelligence brings animals up, in the sense that we get a higher opinion of what animals are all about and how they think and how they feel. But it also brings down humans a little bit.. Also through child research, there’s a lot of interesting research on young infants, like human infants 12 month olds or 18 month old who do things that no one had thought possible. They have, for example, a moral judgment and things like that. What that does also is it makes you think, maybe it’s not as complex as we think because these kids, they are 18 months old, and can also do the same thing. The same thing is seen in all the studies of animals. 

This movement I feel puts humans in a different perspective and uses animals as a sort of mirror in some sense. I think it has a profound effect on how we look at ourselves and our place in nature. It doesn’t have an enormous effect on practical applications necessarily, although that is happening to some degree. 

How do our human senses limit us from understanding animals and how can we compensate for these physical limitations?

The main problem is actually an attitudinal problem. We have this long tradition of downplaying what animals do and considering animals dumb and below our level, and we consider ourselves as absolutely unique. The main problem is an attitudinal problem in that we don’t want to see how smart they are. There are many people who don’t want to hear how smart [animals] are or refuse that kind of information. So the biggest challenge to studying animal intelligence has been to change the attitude, and what’s been happening is that people have become quite a bit less anthropocentric, less focused on the human species. Now people are more open, at least many young scientists are more open now to studying animals for their own sake and not just as a poor derivative of the human.

Is there anything else you would like readers to know about your latest book?

I think it is important to stress that I review all sorts of animal intelligence, not just the primates, because my name is associated with primates. The book covers the history of this field and also covers as many species as it can because I feel the important part of all these studies is that animal cognition is adapted to the specific circumstances of a species instead of thinking in terms of a scale like fish, birds, mammals and us.

This kind of scale thinking is very prevalent in many people. They think there is a kind of linear scale from low to high in the animal world. What we really see is that each species is different and each species depends on what they do and what they need to know. It’s very hard to say which one is smarter, and that sort of comparison is not even relevant.

From an evolutionary perspective, basically there are all these specializations. For example, octopuses are very good at camouflage, they can do things that no mammal can do in terms of camouflages, they can change the color of their skin. That requires some intelligence also to do that, right? And that’s the sort of intelligence that doesn’t even relate to the things that we do. The book is also about all these specializations, these special cognitions that are needed for the environment in which each animal lives.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Chelsea Skojec
Chelsea Skojec is a natural resources conservation student based in Gainesville, FL. Her writing has appeared in the New York Observer, Huffington Post, and LiveScience. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @ChelSkoj

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