Ever stare out into space and look for signs of intelligence? Well, we should be looking right here on Earth, primatologist Frans de Waal argues in his new book, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” (He’ll discuss it at a Smithsonian Associates event Wednesday.)
For centuries, scientists have been obsessed with finding the one big difference that separates humans from other animals — things like tool use, observational learning and the ability to plan ahead. Almost as soon as that line gets drawn in the sand, chimps, crows and octopuses step, fly and swim right over it. It’s time to stop this fruitless quest, de Waal argues: Instead of trying to prove humanity’s superiority, let’s use our big brains to see the world from the point of view of other species.
Why is animal intelligence research taking off now?
I think we got tired of behaviorism, which was dominant last century. More and more phenomena are coming to the fore, of animals doing things that couldn’t be explained by simple instinct or by simple associative learning. And the younger generation is much more open to seeing what animals can do on their own terms.
Why should scientists stop comparing animal intelligence to human intelligence?
Why would you want to judge a bat or an octopus on human terms? They don’t live human lives. In their own contexts, animals do things that we could never match. There are birds that remember 10,000 locations for the seeds that they hide. An octopus can adopt the color of the environment. A bat can detect the location of very small items in pitch-black darkness. We should stop asking who is better and start trying to explain how animals can do these amazing things.
It seems like sometimes we set up intelligence tests that are rigged against animals.
It’s not intentional, it’s just we don’t take into consideration the animal’s umwelt, or world view. For example, people thought that elephants were unable to recognize themselves in the mirror, [because of] a study where they had very small mirrors. But when someone thought to give elephants a mirror that is their size, and they can touch and smell behind it, suddenly they can pass the mirror test.
And even with these disadvantages, sometimes animals outperform us. Like when chimps beat humans on memory tests and in strategy games. And now it turns out that elephants have more neurons than us?
That was a bit upsetting to people because some scientists had said the best criterion for intelligence, regardless of body size, regardless of overall brain size, was to just count the neurons. Humans were always assumed to be at the top of that list. Then the elephant turned out to have three times more neurons than we do, so now we are stuck with the elephant being at the top of that list. And that’s always the issue. People come up with these criteria for intelligence, for consciousness, that separate us from the other animals, and they don’t know what to do if particular animals surpass us in certain ways.
If chimps are so smart, why haven’t they invented the iPhone, or at least one of those first-generation Nokias?
The iPhone is the accumulation of maybe 5,000 years of scientific knowledge. That is our species’ specialty, the accumulation of knowledge through language, and it took a long time for us to get to this point. For a million years, our ancestors used the same hand axes. Only in the last 10,000 to 15,000 years have we had complex societies and made technological advances. In the last two centuries, the pace has accelerated. But we didn’t start out like that.
What are the implications of humanity’s dawning awareness that we are not the Earth’s only intelligent life form?
Our relationship with animals is slowly changing. If you assume complex cognition and emotions in animals, you cannot treat them like garbage. Which is what people are doing in the agricultural industry, for example. It’s also going to affect our way of looking at ourselves. We are going to stop seeing ourselves as totally divorced from nature, as some sort of totally unique brainy primate. Psychology, biology, all these disciplines are going to have to start rethinking their premises.