From bird brain to big brains


Title: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Author: Frans de Waal
Publication Year: 2016
Pages: 340
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Date Started: February 24, 2017
Date Finished: March 3, 2017
Format: Hardcover
Beverage of choice: Peach Herbal Tea

I am a scientist. I work in a behavior lab. So, naturally, when I saw that this book was rated Best Science Book of 2016 on Goodreads, I knew I had to read it.
This books covers many topics about the current scientific understanding about animal cognition. It tackles questions such as, Do animals have consciousness? Do animals experience time? Do animals cooperate for the sake of cooperation?
Don’t let her looks fool you, Ida is actually 
the smartest guinea pig of the bunch.
Dr. de Waal is a world renowned scientist whose earlier work is famous for the suggestion that other primates partake in political exchanges with each other. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that a majority of this book focuses on primates, and specifically chimpanzees. I do not have a problem with chimpanzee research, and think marvelous research has come from studying them, but if we are approaching the question about animal intelligence, I would have preferred a more broad primer on animal intelligence than just focusing on the animal most closely related to humans, and therefore the most similar in intelligence and behavior. There are so many systems to talk about, and many, such as crows, only get brief mentions within each section. Most disappointingly, the book barely touches on invertebrates at all. In fact, octopuses (yes, I thought the plural was octopi, but it turns out that is wrong) were not even mentioned until page 245. Beyond that, invertebrates only occupied a matter of a few paragraphs. This is particularly personal to me, as I work in an invertebrate behavior lab. With invertebrates being nearly entirely dismissed, I feel like so much research and potential for understanding intelligence in animals with minimal brain and nervous system development was like-wise ignored.
Animal system criticism notwithstanding, the substance of the book was marvelously arranged. By comparing and presenting intelligence and behavior in an evolutionary context and defining shared versus convergent evolution, I was able to take away a much stronger understanding of the subject. Some of the anecdotes were mind-boggling and changed how I perceive other animals. The history of the subject was wonderfully intertwined through the studies. de Waal did not try to hide his opinions on research and methods used in the field, which was refreshing. The honesty definitely brought to light holes in the research that need to be addressed by future scientists.
Importantly, de Waal mentions that humans are not the perfect organism. We are not the model that every animal should strive towards or be compared to, as is many times the case in primate research. Scientists need to adjust how they approach research on these topics in order to better understand animal intelligence.
So, in short, yes, yes we are smart enough.
Overall, 3.5/5 moose

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s