Saturday, August 20, 2016

Are We Smart Enough




Primatologist Frans de Waal has made a career out of pounding his head against the rugged wall of human exceptionalism — the belief that humans are the only species that is conscious, self-aware, rational, cooperative, goal-oriented, empathetic, and so on.  This wall of calcified grandiosity has resisted change for a long time, and has inspired an abusive relationship with the rest of the family of life.  With his new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, de Waal has launched a new assault on the cult of exceptionalism.

In the 1970s, when de Waal was in college, behavioral psychology was the hot trend.  It asserted that animals were mindless, machine-like organisms that did nothing more than robotically respond to stimuli with responses.  Animals were incapable of cognition — knowing based on perception and judgment.  They could not have desires or intentions.  Many scholars remain reluctant to consider the possibility that animals possess various forms of intelligence.  Whoops, I meant non-human animals.  In our culture, the two categories of fauna are humans and animals (not wombats and non-wombats).

In the last 20 years, new research has been inspiring doubt in many long-held beliefs, including the notion that rationality is exclusively human.  Yet “animal cognition” is still an obscene four-letter word, a diabolical heresy.  Smart scholars wait until they have tenure before they come out of the closet and study it.

The illusion of exceptionalism has deep roots.  By the time children reach the age of 8 or 10, their worldviews are largely solidified for the rest of their lives.  The culture constantly reinforces this worldview, and only a few can summon the power to question it.  So, youngsters absorb the worldview, grow up, and raise their children with it, generation after generation.  Entrenched belief is immune to conflicting evidence.

Humans are extremely proud of our complex language and abstract thought, but these are just two tools in a big box of mental functions used by animals.  De Waal believes that some species use forms of intelligence that we are still unaware of — intelligence beyond our imagination.  The absolute bottom line for any species is basic survival, and ants and termites excel at this.  No animal needs alphabets, numbers, or glowing screens.

Irene Pepperberg had a parrot named Alex, who was remarkably capable of advanced cognition.  When she pointed at a key, Alex said “key.”  He pronounced words precisely.  He could add numbers.  Alex didn’t just memorize names, he could listen to questions, think, and answer correctly.  He was asked, “What color is corn?” when no corn was present.  “Yellow,” he replied.

Other birds are also extremely smart.  “The Clark’s nutcracker, in the fall, stores more than twenty thousand pine nuts, in hundreds of different locations distributed over many square miles; then in winter and spring it manages to recover the majority of them.”  Could you do that?

Crows, jays, magpies, and ravens are corvids, “a family that has begun to challenge the cognitive supremacy of primates.”  One biologist caught and banded many crows, which really pissed them off.  They recognized him wherever he went, and they regularly scolded and dive-bombed him.

Ayumu the chimp was trained to use a touchscreen.  On the screen, a number appeared for a quarter second, then another, in a rapid sequence.  Ayumu could remember the sequence of numbers, and then tap them in the correct order.  Without practice, he was far better than any human at memory tests — even a memory expert who could remember the sequence of cards in a deck.  Harrumph!  The supremacists soiled their britches and muttered obscenities.  Eventually, a frantic researcher practiced, practiced, and practiced and was finally able to score as well as a chimpanzee.

In Japan, chimps were taught a computer game, similar to rock-paper-scissors, which required them to anticipate their opponent’s choices.  “The chimps outperformed the humans, reaching optimal performance more quickly and completely than members of our own species.”

Like many social animals, primates excel at imitation and conformity, which can have great survival value.  Youngsters note what their mothers eat, and what they avoid.  Chimps readily imitate the behavior of high status chimps, but not low status ones.  When apes are raised in a human home, they are as good at imitating humans as children are.  They “spontaneously learn to brush their teeth, ride bicycles, light fires, drive golf carts, eat with a knife and fork, peel potatoes, and mop the floor.”

Humans are pathological conformists, abandoning personal preferences when they conflict with the current whims of the majority, whims that are typically manufactured by a slimy mob of marketing shysters.  When a celebrity dyes her hair pink, her fans do too.  Respectable people must travel everywhere in gas guzzling motorized wheelchairs — bicyclists, bus riders, and walkers are low status slugs.  Mindless imitation is the life force of consumer society, and the death force of Earth’s biosphere.

When de Waal gives a talk on primate intelligence, he is frequently asked, “What sets humans apart?”  Consider an iceberg, he responds.  Almost all of it is submerged, only a wee tip is visible above the surface.  We have many cognitive, emotional, and behavioral similarities with our primate relatives, and a few dozen differences — the tip.  Academia focuses most attention on the tip alone.  “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the smartest of them all?”

Animal intelligence books annoy me.  Why do we need scientists to inform us that animals are not robots?  Wild people, and others who live close to nature, never doubt the powerful intelligence of deer, ravens, foxes, and weasels.  I know outdoor living.  I have watched healthy wild animals survive long frigid winters without tools, fire, or clothing — a way of life that would promptly kill me.

We are like fish out of water, space aliens.  The best way to discover the intelligence and coherence of the family of life is to abandon our climate-controlled cubicles and go back home to the wild.  But there are way too many of us.  Books and videos cannot substitute for fulltime direct experience.  It’s no fun being a space alien.  The Koyukon tell us “Every animal knows way more than you do.”  A shaman once told Knud Rasmussen “True wisdom is only to be found far away from people, out in the great solitude.”

De Waal’s book jabbers a lot about experiments done in zoos and research centers, on enslaved animals.  I’m not a fan of animal imprisonment.  I’m a fan of wildness and freedom.  The ancestors of chimps and bonobos have lived in the same place for millions of years without trashing it — a demonstration of profound intelligence.  Send the researchers to the rainforest, so we can learn from our brilliant relatives, and rigorously question our entrenched beliefs.

There is an enormous quirk in this book.  The core premise is that humans are a highly intelligent species, and that the other animals are not as dumb as we think.  Are ants seriously destabilizing the climate?  Are termites acidifying the oceans?  Are chimps sending billions of tons of topsoil into the sea?  In this discourse on animal intelligence, the fact that human animals are knowingly bludgeoning the planet is never once acknowledged.

De Waal says, “Cognition is the mental transformation of sensory input into knowledge about the environment and the successful application of this knowledge.”  Cognition is about the process of acquiring and applying knowledge.  “Intelligence refers more to the ability to do it successfully.”  Among the propeller heads of science, “success” includes the bad juju of overpopulation, overshoot, and overconsumption.  My definition of success requires long-term ecological sustainability.

Waal, Frans de, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2016.

15 comments:

Venkataraman Amarnath said...

I am glad you mention honeybees. Their ability is amazing. I have read books by Thomas D. Seeley of Cornell. A bee can cover 5 kilometers in 15 minutes. Think of it in human terms. After making that flight how it can come back to its hive in a complex forest? No GPS.

John Weber said...

another good one.

Gaia's sister said...

We are all “wild” people, it is just that the majority of us are currently living in captivity. We just don’t know we are. We call this captivity “civilization” and mistakenly sometimes refer to it as “culture”, opposing it to “nature”. However even when living in close contact with what we call “nature” but what is really just the “outdoors” we still deceive ourselves into thinking that we are self-domesticated. Here we may err profoundly, for there is nothing domestic about about a wolf in a zoo. It is not like the dog, with genetic changes in neural crest development, leading to less aggressive and reactive flight/fight responses, and pleiotropic side effects like white spotting, and weaker cartilage.

Thom Hawkins said...

Thanks Gaia for the image of cities as human zoos. No locks on the cages, just television, movies and smart phones. Thom
PS - Who are the zoo keepers? The zoos exist for the sole pleasure and blood sport of the one percent.

Thom Hawkins said...

BRAVO! I don’t know how you do it, but your reviews keep getting more and more incisive and informed. Must be all that reading and clean-living. I feel that this one in particular deserves a wider audience, perhaps The Guardian, The Conversation, Dark Mountain, The Progressive, or, even, The New York Review of Books. As a matter of fact, I think your best reviews should appear as a regular column in The Progressive. Send a copy of this one to Wendell Berry, who appears often in The Progressive writing about the same things you write about. I can give you his address. He’ll enjoy reading it. You have a special talent for digesting complex ideas into clear language suitable for the widest possible audience, from regular folks to academe.

Speaking of reaching people, when I bring up these ideas in conversation, people often respond by saying, “This is too depressing to talk about. I don’t want to think about it.” BAM! Right at that moment they make the decision that short-term personal comfort and conformity are more important than long term survival. The irony and the tragedy is that at this moment across the globe on a massive scale people and the environment are experiencing short term human and animal destruction caused by the detritus of civilization. Yet, even when the destruction is on their doorsteps, they stare blankly past it into continuing avoidance of reality.

When I consider the issues you raise, I don’t get depressed but explore further and try to do something to address the problems. Well, maybe I get a little depressed. And maybe I don’t have any solutions, but I’m not going to stop trying; reading your blogs helps keep me alert. Thanks again, Rick.

Frying in LA, Thom

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Amarnath! Yes, bees are amazing. They remind me of the Polynesians who could sail an outrigger hundreds of miles, directly to a tiny island, with no navigational aids other than their knowledge of the wind, waves, and marine life. I don’t know what your comment refers to, I didn’t mention bees in my review. Maybe someone posted a comment, then deleted it.

Hi John! Thank you!

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Gaia's sister! I’m sure we’re all wild people when we squirt out of the womb. The lucky ones, in remote locations, remain wild and free. Most of us get tamed. Taming a feral horse is called “breaking” it. Paul Shepard insisted that we are not domesticated, because we still have Pleistocene genes. Nitpickers disagree, pointing to our new genetic features, like lactose tolerance and sickle cell genes. I think that most of our damage comes from living in or near pathological cultures.

Timothy Scott Bennett says that we are “born in captivity,” like the chimps enslaved at research centers, or the newborn critters in zoos, or dogs, cattle, sheep, chickens, and on and on. I agree that civilization is not another word for culture. Culture is learned behavior, and different bands of chimps have different traditions for living, different tools, different food preferences.

I’ve been reading about megafauna lately, and was surprised to learn that wild horses may be extinct. There are many breeds of horses today, but some think that all of them descend from domesticated ancestors.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Thom! Thanks! I had a hard time with that review, but it got a surprising result — 166 views in 24 hours, 53 likes, and 18 shares on Facebook. I haven’t thought much about submitting work to magazines and journals, since my perspective tends to be “out there,” and my work is not proper, dignified, suit and tie stuff.

It’s been a while since I paid much attention to the print media world. Writing about “turbulence ahead” is really hard to sell. Writing about solar panels, electric cars, pipelines, organic food, vegetarianism, etc. is where the action is, methinks — any approach that allows us to keep our precious goodies whilst feeling a bit less guilty.

Yes, the world is loaded with people who “don’t want to think about it.” I’ve found that my time is more productive when I try to help people who actually want to learn, and aren’t afraid of opening their eyes. My blog has had 157,000 views. The Near Term Extinction rant has had close to 10,000 views. There are thinking people out there. I’ve reviewed 165 books, and more to come.

It is daunting to “think about it” at a time when we face so many insoluble predicaments, and have no “get out of collapse free” Chance cards. The game clock is running. Big change is coming. I prefer to be present in reality, and acknowledge the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Stuffing gorillas under the carpet has got to be painful, frustrating, and crazy making.

Do your best, Thom, and stay cool! We’ve had a couple hot days this year, exceeding 100 once. I survived!

Gaia's sister said...

Yes, there is however a problem with my own comment regarding civilization being a form of captivity... I do not think we can therefore assume that we are are therefore ill-equipped due to what your friend Paul Shepard said: "that we are not domesticated, because we still have Pleistocene genes”. it is a fallacy to assume that the life of hunting and gathering on the African savanna during the Pleistocene is the "evolutionary environment of adaptation” for humans, resulting in "stone-aged" brains mismatched to other kinds of economy, let alone to life in "modern’ cultures.

I have lived with hunter-gatherers, as well as with horticulturalists and pastoralists.. I find no evidence that humans in any of these societies have cognitive specialization to live in their particular economies.

What we are not suited for: injustice, bullying, solitary confinement, or enforced inactivity. (We are also not suited for exposure to constant high levels of malnutrition, fear, stress, or violence, but that is because we are animals, not because we are human.) 

Hunting and gathering are economic activities, which are learned aspects of human behaviour. Human behavioural evolution no more equipped us to survive best in “African savanna” than it hampered us in adapting to glaciated Eurasia, nor did it better equip us to get our food by “foraging” rather then by "gardening" or “shopping”.

Our human nature does not have to change to accommodate living in complex stratified societies.

It is CULTURE, not mobile foraging, that is the essential system to which the human mind and behavioural plasticity adapts. Adaptation to life as a cultural creature, over the course of several million years, has strengthened the “sapient” side of human nature. We, like many other animals, are capable of mental time travel, we have mental maps, and we can solve puzzles. We have ramped up that ability to analyze - to do what Daniel Kahneman calls “slow thinking” - the energy-expensive kind of cogitating - the “rational” mind. Enhancement of these cognitive abilities catapulted the human system of learned behaviour into a class by itself.

Our human nature, transmuted by our long specialization for a predominantly cultural adaptation, is acutely primed for social engagement, for contact, for language and for paradignamic thinking. 
So... sure we all are capable of selfishness as well as generosity, of meanness and spite as well as cooperation and compassion: but a sustainable and viable culture bends with human nature -- towards justice.  


What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Gaia's sister!

I think that modern cultures exist in a manner that is not beneficial for the family of life — frogs, condors, humans. Nobody benefits from intense nonstop global ecocide.

Yes, cultural evolution enabled us to survive in many different ways, some temporary. Genetic evolution adapted us for life in the tropics. We cannot survive in temperate or arctic climates without lots of prosthetic technology.

While cultural evolution has inspired our temporary experiment in soil mining, forest mining, fish mining, etc., these behaviors are not sustainable, because they cause permanent injury to the ecosystem, the entire family of life. Maybe we’ll learn from our mistakes. Maybe not.

I don’t see that there is any benefit in adapting to complex stratified societies, since they have never been sustainable, and never will be. I think that there is benefit in studying environmental history, and making a radical effort to shift to a slower, simpler path with a future (if we have one).

Yes, I agree that our cognitive abilities have catapulted the human system of learned behavior into a class by itself. We’re killing the ecosystem, at the same time we have smart phones. We believe in perpetual growth on a finite planet. This unique class is catastrophically dysfunctional. It has no future.

I think that a sustainable and viable culture must demonstrate an ability to adapt to ecosystems in a manner that can persist for thousands of years. Sustainability is ecological justice. Ecocide is not.

Gaia's sister said...

I agree that our present industrial civilization is unsustainable. I agree that it is killing the planet. In my first comment I thought I said that same thing.. that some humans even today live in cultures that are based on sustainable use of their ecosystems.

One of the interesting things about this whole discussion is that on a deeper level, it makes us examine the unconscious assumptions and models - the paradigms - that can vary from culture to culture. The paradigm of most states and empires right up to the present included an assumption that settled life in towns and cities was superior and indicated superior people, thus the “tribal” peoples who lived by shifting cultivation (slash and burn) and the nomadic pastoralists were dismissed as inferior “barbarians" who could be exterminated, enslaved, and/or driven off their lands. This is being done right this minute to tribal people in New Guinea by the Indonesian government to make way for more palm oil plantations, and in the Amazon to make way for logging and dams and other commercial ventures. African tribal land is being sold off or rented to foreign commercial farmers and oil companies and mining corporations... the entire ocean ecosystem is being strip-mined b vast fleets of factory ships. Climate change, soil erosion, pesticides, plastic pollution and fracking are destroying both marine and fresh water everywhere on the planet. It must stop.
So I think we are on the same page here.

What Is Sustainable said...

Yay! I'm glad we're on the same page. Communicating with strings of characters via the internet is not my favorite way. We certainly live in interesting and perplexing times.

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Isabel Bent said...

Beautiful blog and i really like and valuable blog well done and keep posting.
Humanity as ONE Family

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Isabel! Thank you. I'm glad my work was useful.