By: NATALIA PATTERSON
For as long as we can remember, humans have been trying to answer the question: “Are animals as smart as us?” For a long time, our species was considered to have intelligence that is superior to that of other animals. The arguments for this idea included our unique abilities to communicate and understand language, create tools to accomplish tasks, think ahead, and even understand others’ perspectives. However, in his book “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”, primatologist Frans de Waal reveals that the way we have been judging animal cognition is wrong.
According to de Waal, we cannot compare minds of different species and rank one higher than the other. Instead, we must understand that animals’ minds have evolved to perform actions that are different from ours, and therefore, cannot be judged as less intelligent just because they do not fit the human standards of intellect. De Waal gives the example of the scrub jay, a bird that hides its food in various locations and has the ability to remember the location of hundreds of food items at a time. In addition, he writes about a chimpanzee that could remember a random sequence of the numbers 1 through 9 after seeing it for only 210 milliseconds, proving to have a better photographic memory than any human. This does not indicate that these animals are smarter than humans, but rather, that we have not evolved in the same way, as we do not require these abilities to survive in the environment we live in.
Furthermore, the author gives examples of animals displaying traits that were previously thought to be uniquely human, rejecting the idea that animals’ brains function on sudden impulses and lack conscious thought. This includes resourcefulness, as many animals have the ability to use objects around them as tools. One example of this is how chimpanzees use tools to find food, cracking nuts by hitting them with rocks and using sticks to fish out termites. De Waal states that the chimpanzees gain nine times more calories than they expend when finding food, proving that, indeed, these apes use tools not just randomly, but to their benefit.
One of the book’s most significant examples of animal cognition is the complex social hierarchy in groups of chimpanzees, which de Waal describes in detail. All of the males in the group are constantly battling for power and displaying dominance, while the females are born into their position on the social scale. However, chimps of both genders show respect to those who rank higher than them. During a study, a lower-ranking female let a higher-ranking female take part in the puzzles and tests that humans created for them before herself. In addition, chimpanzees are shown to take the example of higher-ranking members of their group, much like humans imitate celebrities’ actions. By presenting this information, de Waal gives us a view into the lives of apes, showing us that their understanding of social connections isn’t so much weaker than ours.
With this evidence that animal minds are no lesser than our own, why do some still find it hard to accept this? De Waal addresses this, suggesting that this issue has to do with ego. Most humans like to believe that we are earth’s dominant species, and therefore have superior cognitive abilities to all other animals. With our tendency to think this way, some studies that scientists have performed have a bias against the idea of animal cognition. For example, the author writes that many laboratories keep their animal subjects at 85% body weight during the test, since they believe that their hunger will keep them motivated to perform the tasks for food rewards. De Waal contrasts this from the treatment of our own species by stating: “No one has ever proposed permanent food deprivation for university students. Why would it be any different for animals?” Only when humans can put their pre-existing biases towards animals aside will it be possible for us to truly understand how smart animals are.