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.