All Creatures Great and Smart

Frans de Waal suggests that reports of human superiority may have been greatly exaggerated
faculty book

Bump, bump, bump. That is the sound of Frans de Waal taking humankind down a few rungs.

In so doing, he reveals an animal world capable of greater cognitive sophistication than we imagine. De Waal—Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology and director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes National Primate Research Center—unfurls this challenge to our collective ego in the book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and in “What I Learned from Tickling Apes,” an opinion piece that ran in the New York Times on April 8.

The Scala Naturae (“ladder/stairway of nature”) is a concept derived from Plato, Aristotle, and other early philosophers. Humankind found itself solidly and smugly in the fourth position—just down from God, the angels, and demons, but clearly the better of all else in the universe, including animals.

The scientific work of recent decades, though, argues otherwise as formerly sacrosanct notions—that we alone have a sense of self, the ability to design tools, or grasp past and future—have been disproven. If it is true that rats may regret their decisions, crows manufacture tools, and octopuses recognize human faces, then where are we?

“Nothing is off limits anymore, not even the rationality that was once considered humanity’s trademark,” says de Waal.

He describes seeing a chimpanzee named Franje gather straw from her warm inside cage to take outside. To what end, he wondered. She apparently had remembered the shiver-inducing temperatures from the day before. As de Waal writes, “Even if the initial observation is simple (an ape collects a pile of straw), the repercussions can be enormous,” for indeed Franje’s meteorological memory is part of an intense debate currently being waged: Do animals plan for the future?

De Waal’s book goes at evolutionary cognition in the best way—as story. He tells artful tales of the discoveries, species, and scientists who have created the most buzz in the past 20 years, many of whom—human and animal—he knows firsthand. For instance, says de Waal, “Clark’s nutcrackers (members of the crow family) recall the location of thousands of seeds that they have hidden half a year before, while I can’t even remember where I parked my car a few hours ago.”

The days of animal cognition being considered a soft science are surely numbered. For his own discipline, ethology, de Waal sees a coming shift from reliance on the behavioral to a greater role for neuroscience. Science will need to put its finger on the processes behind higher capacities.

So, where do we land? “We are facing an enormous plurality of cognitions with many peaks of specialization,” says de Waal.

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