Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

PUBLISHED ON NOV 10, 2018

I picked up this book looking for an accessible pop-science book, and it delivered very well! Frans de Waal gives a very interesting account on the study of intelligence in animals over the past 100 years. It touches on a variety of different topics: social structure, memory, temporal awareness and meta-tool usage to name a few. De Waal substantiates most of these concepts with both anecdotes and descriptions of related research work. The style of writing is very lucid, and there isn’t too much technical jargon.

The section on consciousness in animals seemed a bit short. This is obviously a difficult subject to talk about, but it was something I was most interested in. The book breaks down consciousness into certain characteristics, like mirror recognition and knowledge about knowledge(do animals know what they know?). I’m not sure what would be a more appropriate way to approach this topic. This might be more of a philosophical question on what consciousness really is.

Over the course of the book, de Waal paints a picture of the work done by scientists in this field often rebuked by skeptics. Some of these stem from the way some(most?) people feel compelled to assert their superiority over other species, refusing to acknowledge the intellectual prowess of animals. While this had to be addressed, de Waal spends a tiresome amount of time on these tirades throughout the book.

Overall, I really liked the book, and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning about cognition in the animal kingdom. I was pleasantly surprised by a lot of the abilities that animals possessed, most memorably the very creepy mimic octopus. Here’s my favorite quote from the book:

At the time Desmond Morris was working at the London Zoo, which still held tea parties in the ape house with the public looking on. Gathered on chairs around a table, the apes had been trained to use bowls, spoons, cups, and a teapot. Naturally, this equipment posed no problem for these tool-using animals. Unfortunately, over time the apes became too polished and their performance too perfect for the English public, for whom high tea constitutes the peak of civilization. When the public tea parties began to threaten the human ego, something had to be done. The apes were retrained to spill the tea, throw food around, drink from the teapot’s spout, and pop the cups into the bowl as soon as the keeper turned his back. The public loved it! The apes were wild and naughty, as they were supposed to be.​