Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Date Reviewed
August 15th 2016


Author Frans de Waal answers the question in the title early and in the affirmative. This is the latest offering of the animal behaviouralist, whose book 'The Bonobo and the Atheist' is profiled on this site.

But in this book, the scope of his insights and observations is broader. And maybe more importantly, his political challenge is more pointed. Those who still insist on measuring animals capabilities against those of humans in a human context have to deal with a twist.

And that is coming to terms with seeing animals' 'intelligence' in the context of their own lives and needs. Traditionally intelligence experiments seemed motivated to get animals to do human 'tricks', maybe thinly veiled to confirm human abilities/superiority.

For some people, animals' ability to perform these tricks was seen as interesting, for others threatening. In most cultures, humans hold themselves to be superior and many values are based on this premise, so any jostling can be threatening.

Animal marvels have often been dismissed as genetic, to hive off learning and responding as solely the human domain. Progressively the message seems to be that seeming human advantage is not in kind, but in degree. And while this is being acknowledged grudgingly, Charles Darwin stated such a century and a half ago.

And where an advantage is so overwhelming with an animal, it may be dismissed as an advantage of senses such as seeing, hearing and smelling. And again there has been traditionally little reflection on how this world of keener senses may have affected, the knowledge and processing of information, even learning, we are not privy to. While we marvel at what other species can do, we have been loath to call it intelligence, instead resorting to some other less 'threatening' term like 'instinct'.

De Waal reinforces this with a quote from physicist Werner Heisenberg “what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

Through the book de Waal illustrates the intelligence of various animals within the needs of their lives and environments. The human sense of superiority is somewhat dulled when these parameters are imposed.

While we have become used to the intellectual marvels of other primates, some birds, dolphins and now elephants, the revelation that something so 'primitive' as an octopus might have a cognitive leg up on us in some areas, is harder to reconcile. Says de Waal, they really think “outside of the box” with a multi-faceted nervous system reminiscent of the internet. Rather than just a centralized brain there are several cognitive nodes available to the octopus.

As with his other books, de Waal has compelling anecdotes illustrating his ideas and he draws heavily on the knowledge of others with experience of other animals. He also includes his own drawings in the book, as he did in his previous book.

Each organism senses the environment in its own way. And a single environment offers “hundreds of realities peculiar to each species”. Every species develops its own response. And while we can't feel the reality of others we can try to imagine it. “Every species sets up its own learning opportunities” through its activities. Humans see themselves as instructed by cause and effect, but resist seeing it in animals.


“Cognition”, the mental transformation of sensory input into knowledge about the environment, was not entertained in animals until the 1980s. “Intelligence” is the ability to do it successfully. Bats with their vocalization and acute hearing and responses are an example.

I recently queried a friend, who has a dog obedience school, in relation to an article suggesting that wolves are smarter than dogs. He pointed out that while wolves may be smarter in wolf things they are not smarter in dog things than dogs. Further when asked about a pig's 'failure' in a dog obedience school, he said, she knew what was expected, she just didn't want to do it. We may be tempted to more readily see pet dog intelligence because they are so attuned to pleasing us, where many other animals don't care.

“Ranking cognition,” says de Wall, “on a single dimension is pointless.” Animals know what they need to know. For humans to understand animal cognition they must become accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the animals they are testing. Sometimes bright animals are too bored to excel at a task set for them.

Some animals can use tools, but what they choose to use will be peculiar to themselves. An elephant will not pick up something like a stick with its trunk to get something out of reach. Instead it may look for something to stand on to reach with its trunk. So in human evaluation of tool use in other species we have to know those peculiarities of temperament, interests, anatomy and sensory capacities, he says. Tool use can vary with cultural and ecological circumstances, says de Waal.

And while primate use of tools has been known for a century it is just within the last decade that tool use in birds (corvids) has been studied. Of maybe even more surprise, crocodiles may use lures to attract birds. Reptiles using tools is an even more startling idea, maybe only outdone by the revelation of an octopus using tools. Through all of this de Waal suggests that this application of intelligence is an evolutionary response to the environmental circumstances.

Chimpanzees have face recognition as acute as humans, but not for human faces, but the faces of other chimpanzees. Correspondingly humans are not as conversant with the individual faces of members of other species.

While many animal learning experiences have focussed on using food as a motivator, one primatologist said that intelligent animals are more motivated by curiosity and free exploration. And from this they gather information that may be used in the future. He says “all apes think before they act”, the most deliberate being the orangutan.

The capuchin monkey on the other hand, he adds, is action oriented with little advance thought, but may end with the same solution as the apes. However, the apes will better understand how something works than the monkey.

Humans and animals may develop non verbal communication that neither is aware of.

Animals may discover, or see a behaviour (sweet potato washing), start practising it and pass it down through generations. It is a form of culture.

One might even see chimpanzee caste system as a culture. The status of individuals is marked, and says de Wall, the status of a parent is passed on to its offspring. Chimpanzees have an elaborate hierarchical political structure, cunning and alliances galore that would impress Niccolo Machiavelli. And like humans, chimpanzees have a drive for power.

However, cautions de Wall, chimpanzees can also have empathy, work co-operatively and manage internal conflict when needed.

While he precludes few human abilities from an animal parallel, language is one. While they can communicate many needs and desires, there is no evidence that their communication is symbolized or as flexible as language.

A chimpanzee with a 'photographic memory' where he could memorize and replicate more rapidly and accurately than humans on the same task is one of the more remarkable revelations and caused a great deal of scientific distress. De Waal says that “it violated the dictum that, without exception, tests of intelligence ought to confirm human superiority.”

People working on the project were determined to practice and exceed the chimpanzee, but the chimp never had to practice to be that quick, reminds de Waal.

From this the author reminds the reader that the chimpanzee brain is nearly identical to the human, albeit on a reduced scale. But the nearness causes widespread alarm in many areas and religion is near the top in its concern over any degree of challenge to human exceptionality.

Clearly, he says, humans are special, but if we start with the presumption that they are in every cognitive capacity “we are leaving the realm of science and entering that of belief”.

And delightful phraseology that could apply to all science “uniqueness claims typically cycle through four stages: they are repeated over and over, they are challenged by new findings, they hobble toward retirement, and then they are dumped into an ignominious grave.”

However, he cautions “redefining man will never go out of style” punctuated by eureka moments that later prove inconclusive. Maybe it is unsurprising that apes seem to think that they are more interesting than humans.

One key element of cognitive study is 'theory of mind' which is “the capacity to grasp the mental states of others”. This seems well spread in the 'animal' kingdom.

And something to keep in mind “animal behaviour is not only goal_but also future oriented”. They have jobs to do. Humans tend to presume they wander around aimlessly.

And another trait not regularly associated with animals is restraint and willpower. For a primate community it is necessary to maintain its hierarchy and thus unity. “Self-control is an age-old feature of animal communities.” “Impulse control is a major part of success in society.”

Human ignorance of this is expressed in calling badly behaved humans “animals”. De Waal gave examples of where 'well behaved' animals were taught to misbehave in order to reassure humans.

'Episodic memory' or memories with the relevant circumstances is another characteristic humans have been reluctant to concede to other animals. It is referred to in grudges Siberian tigers hold for humans who have hunted them.

And some animals, apparently including rats, seem to know what they know and where their knowledge is deficient.

And extraordinary senses of some species that humans don't have, or to a much less degree, makes the way these animals relate to their environment “impossible for us to fathom”, says de Wall. “Reality is a mental construct.”

He says “we are just beginning to scratch the surface of one of the most enigmatic minds (elephant) on the planet.”

He points out that self awareness develops like an onion layer upon layer and doesn't appear suddenly at a certain age.

Most investigation of cognition is of vertebrates even though 97 per cent of the animal kingdom are not. An octopus opening a childproof cap on a pill bottle is the non vertebrate currently at the top of the list for investigation. It has the largest and most complex brain of invertebrates, but “seeing skin” and “thinking arms” really set it apart. They are short-lived, loners with no social organization.

Humans readily attribute their 'remarkable capacities' to instinct rather than cognition. In a sense octopi are too far out for us to comprehend.

Back again to the primates. Chimps, like humans, are conformists. Conforming to norms is a foundation of culture. And conforming to the group likely assists survival.

De Waal said some of the skepticism surrounding the cognition of animals is based on belief rather than science. 'You can't see it if you don't believe it.'

“Animals learn what they need to learn and have specialized ways of sifting though the massive information around them.”

And the author's interesting observation... humans for long, have been pondering space and the existence of life on other planets, yet spending little time trying to understand the other lifeforms on this planet.