If there’s one thing I’ve learned all these years blogging about books it’s the more I enjoyed a book, the harder it is for me to write about it. Writing about books I’m not crazy about it is easy. Heck, just post anything on the blog. On the other hand, writing about great book takes forever. Outstanding books call for outstanding reviews and outstanding reviews aren’t easy to write. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to write about Frans de Waal’s outstanding book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Let’s just say it’s a book so good I feel out of my league reviewing it.
Had it not been for my book club, I might never have heard of, let alone read Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Published in April of 2016, De Waal’s book is a detailed look at the world of animal cognition. Looking at a wide array of animals including primates of all varieties but also birds (especially the highly intelligent corvids like crows and ravens), dolphins, elephants and even octopuses De Waal shows without a doubt the gap, cognitively speaking, between these kinds of animals and humans is surprising narrow. As threatening as this might be to our species’ sense of exceptionalism and primacy, the ongoing research shows us this gap is getting narrower all the time. While many scientists and researchers accept the conclusions of these new findings some do not, instead preferring to redefine the definition of such cognitive processes like problem-solving, tool manufacturing and usage, communication and sense of self. De Wall calls this habit of raising the intellectual bar so humans feel less threatened as “moving the goal posts.” (One of my favorite stories in the book is that of the chimps in the London Zoo who were trained to take tea just like any respectable Brits. The problem was the chimps did such good job having a proper tea Londoners felt threatened. As a response the chimps were taught to be sloppy and careless when having tea.)
De Waal’s book is just as much about human cognition as it is about animal cognition, specifically how we humans strive to measure animal intelligence but frequently in the end our assumptions and prejudices prevent us from getting a truer understanding of how animals use their brains. Borrowing from the German biologist Jakob von Uexkull, according to De Waal if you wanna understand how an animal thinks, you gotta understand that animal’s surrounding world, or umwelt. Don’t assign a bunch of intelligence tests that don’t reflect the reality of an animal’s umwelt. As an example, De Waal talks about attempts to measure elephant cognition, specifically tool making. Researchers gave elephants sticks to see if they would use them as tools to grab out of reach treats. Researchers failed to take into account that elephants prefer not to use their trunks in that fashion, since it prevents them from using their trunks as a smell organ. A more accurate test of elephant tool-making was giving them boxes to stack in order to construct a make-shift step-ladder. By doing so the elephant could reach a high-hanging snack and thus show elephants can be tool-making creatures.
Not only is this an outstanding book, it’s by far one of the best book I read in 2016. Please consider Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? highly recommended.