Frans de Waal

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

“We are trying to get under the skin of other species, trying to understand them on their terms. And the more we succeed, the more we discover a natural landscape dotted with magic wells.”

In his memoirs of flying and fighting in WWII, the future children’s book author Roald Dahl recalls flying over a Grecian hilltop.

I cleared the top of the mountain range with 500 feet to spare, and as I went over it I saw a single solitary goat, brown and white, wandering on the bare rock. ‘Hello goat,’ I said aloud into my oxygen mask, ‘I’ll bet you don’t know the Germans are going to have you for supper before you’re very much older.’ To which, as I realized as soon as I’d said it, the goat might very well have answered, ‘And the same to you, my boy. You’re no better off than I am.’

From Roald Dahl’s Going Solo

Goats. Photograph by Ellen Vrana featured in Franz de Waal's "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Of course Dahl would not imagine the goat actually thought such things, but the example shows our limitation in understanding animals in that we attribute to them our own thoughts and feelings.1

We imagine animals’ feelings not merely in jest, or as figures of comfort and fantasy, but in the deepest reaches of science.

“Ours is not to know,” wrote Elie Wiesel on limits of human suffering and the absolute darkness of humanity, “But to understand.”

Such a subtle but critical distinction has driven the life work of Dutch biologist/primotologist Frans de Waal (born October 29, 1948) and explains why this particular academic study is housed in the psychology- not biology – department of Emory University. De Waal’s absolutely divine Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? explores how our quest to understand animals is limited by our own self-knowledge and awareness.

Cheetah. Photograph by Ellen Vrana featured in Franz de Waal's "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

For years, scientists believed elephants incapable of using tools. The pachyderms failed the same out-of-reach banana test, leaving the stick alone. Their failure could not be attributed to an inability to lift objects from a flat surface, because elephants are ground dwellers and pick up items all the time, sometimes tiny ones. Researchers concluded that they just didn’t get the problem. It occurred to no one that perhaps we, the investigators, didn’t get the elephant.

In contrast to the primate’s hand, the elephant’s grasping organ is also its nose. Elephants use their trunks not only to reach food but also to sniff and touch it. With their unparalleled sense of smell, these animals know exactly what they are going for. But picking up a stick blocks their nasal passages. Even when they bring the stick close to the food, it impedes their feeling and smelling it. It is like sending a blindfolded child out on an Easter egg hunt.

Camel. Photograph by Ellen Vrana featured in Franz de Waal's "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

By examining the learning curve of animal intelligence, de Waal makes the point that senses are key to putting data into knowledge, otherwise known as cognition, which is measurable when we presume animals’ primary senses. What is more difficult to measure, however, and thus comprehend, is intelligence, or the ability to use knowledge successfully.

Every species deals flexibly with the environment and develops solutions to the problems it poses. Each one does it differently. We had better use the plural to refer to their capacities, therefore, and speak of intelligences and cognitions. This will help us avoid comparing cognition on a single scale modeled after Aristotle’s scala naturae, which runs from God, the angels, and humans at the top, downward to other mammals, birds, fish, insects, and mollusks at the bottom. Comparisons up and down this vast ladder have been a popular pastime of cognitive science, but I cannot think of a single profound insight it has yielded. All it has done is make us measure animals by human standards, thus ignoring the immense variation in organisms’ Umwelten.

It seems highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to ten if counting is not really what a squirrel’s life is about. The squirrel is very good at retrieving hidden nuts, though, and some birds are absolute experts. The Clark’s nutcracker, in the fall, stores more than twenty thousand pine nuts, in hundreds of different locations distributed over many square miles; then in winter and spring it manages to recover the majority of them.

Anyone who seeks “to cross that which divides us,” to borrow a phrase from cat-owner Doris Lessing is facilitated by umwelt, a German word which means our ability to think what the animal is thinking.

A healthy dose of umwelt, argues de Waal, is necessary to unlock those wells of understanding including language and more importantly, what “language” means to animals who use it.

Great tits, for example, have a unique call for snakes, which pose a grave threat as they slither into nests to swallow the young. But whereas these kinds of studies have helped raise the profile of animal communication, some serious doubts have been raised, too, and language parallels have been called a “red herring.” Animal calls do not necessarily mean what we think they mean: a critical part of how they function is how listeners interpret them. On top of this, it is good to keep in mind that most animals do not learn their calls the way humans learn words. They are simply born with them. However sophisticated natural animal communication may be, it lacks the symbolic quality and open-ended syntax that lends human language its infinite versatility.

Other means to measure animal intelligence include viewing social relationships within species like acts of protection and care.

One of the oldest reports in the scientific literature concerns an incident, in 1954, off the coast of Florida. During a capture expedition for a public aquarium, a stick of dynamite was set off under the water surface near a pod of bottlenose dolphins. As soon as one stunned victim surfaced, heavily listing, two other dolphins came to its aid: “One came up from below on each side, and placing the upper lateral part of their heads approximately beneath the pectoral fins of the injured one, they buoyed it to the surface in an apparent effort to allow it to breathe while it remained partially stunned.” The two helpers were submerged, which meant that they couldn’t breathe during the entire effort. The pod remained nearby and waited until their companion recovered, after which they all fled in a hurry, taking tremendous leaps.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana featured in Franz de Waal's "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
Animals have also been seen to connect across species if it is mutually beneficial. The internet has gifted us coyote waiting for his friend the badger, but what about the eel and the coral trout?

The moray eel can enter crevices in the coral reef, whereas the [leopard] trout hunts in the open waters around it. Prey can escape from the trout by hiding in a crevice and from the eel by entering open water, but it cannot get away from the two of them together. In one of Bshary’s videos, we see a coral trout and a moray eel swimming side by side like friends on a stroll. They seek each other’s company, with the trout sometimes actively recruiting an eel through a curious head shake close to the eel’s head. The latter responds to the invitation by leaving its crevice and joining the trout. Given that the two species don’t share the prey with each other but swallow it whole, their behavior seems a form of cooperation in which each achieves a reward without sacrificing anything for the other. They are out for their own gain, which they attain more easily together than alone.

De Waal has spent his life breaking down the perceived difference between animals and us (as we perceive ourselves as separate). As he slowly wraps us together in this wonderful bond of similarities, our differences are merely, as noted Charles Darwin, “of degrees not kind.”

For all the knowledge we lack, that we have understanding is everything.

Giraffe. Photograph by Ellen Vrana featured in Franz de Waal's "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Accompany de Waal’s delightful examination of animals vis-à-vis human folly with Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs, verse that goes deep into understanding her life-long companions; Wendell Berry’s essays that argue nature has virtue for its own sake; de Waal’s study of empathy as a biologically-formed aspect of human nature, and David Attenborough’s life account of “understanding of how the natural world worked.” A worthy pursuit if there ever was one.