Monday, October 17, 2016

#44 [2016/CBR8] "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" by Frans de Waal

My unerring interest in animal behavior sometimes has me wondering whether I should have become a wildlife biologist. If I were only braver and smarter, maybe I could have been a new Jane Goodall, spending my life in the woods and learning about a completely different species. But my interests are never persistent or steady enough to commit to anything like that. So I have to satisfy this interest with some occasional reading. I recently read Animal Wise by Virginia Morell, which I found both eye-opening and fascinating. When I saw that a similar book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) by Frans de Waal, had just come out, I immediately looked it up at my library.

Frans de Waal covers a lot of the same ground that Morell hits in Animal Wise, so I didn't find it quite as miraculous as I might have if the information were new. The biggest difference between the two books, however, was the focus. Morell's book was more layperson friendly, with each chapter devoted to a specific animal and the amazing things they're learning about that animal. It was full of detailed descriptions of various scientific studies that show how we're increasing our knowledge about lives that are so different from our own that it's hard to comprehend.

On the other hand, de Waal spends a lot of time discussing the various ideologies surrounding the science of animal behavior. "This overview is obviously incomplete, but my main objective is to convey enthusiasm for evolutionary cognition and to illustrate how it has grown into a respectable science based on rigorous observations and experiments." (324) Often, it felt like the book was written to argue with his fellow scientists about what to call his discipline. Since I was just looking for interesting stories about animal intelligence, I found this very frustrating and almost gave up after the first chapter. [Although it continued through the rest of the book, once de Waal laid down the framework, it wasn't quite as pervasive.] However, even when he got to talking about animals, I wish he had gone into more detail about the studies, how they were executed, and how the animals performed.

One of the most memorable lessons from both books was that animal cognition is less of a hierarchy with humans at the top, than something like a bush. Animals have specialized strengths that vary so drastically, that even when comprehensible, it is impossible to say which is objectively better. Another memorable lesson is that throughout history, mankind's homosapien-centric views color their findings in ridiculous ways. In fact, the need to shout human supremacy before anything else gets in the way of a lot of research. Scientists declared that chimpanzees were bad at facial recognition, which they tested by showing them headshots of humans. They said they didn't use pictures of chimps in their study because chimps look too much alike. Needless to say, when pictures of chimps were used, the chimpanzees, as a complex, social animal, easily showed they were adept at facial recognition. The chimps could also tell which chimps were related to each other from pictures--even chimps they had never known. And now we know that even the octopus can recognize different human faces.

I agreed with de Waal's opinion that in order to study animals, you need to first spend thousands of hours studying them in their natural habitat. You can't run into a lab with an animal you know very little about and come up with useful and meaningful studies. The animals need to be humanely treated and not stressed out, too, both for ethical reasons, and for achieving accurate results regarding their behavior. I would prefer to keep animals out of labs all together, but I appreciate that de Waal cared about the lives of his subjects.

Although I preferred Morell's book to this one, and I could have done without a lot of the detail on the scientific bickering about terminology, he was still discussing one of my favorite subjects. I hope they keep publishing these kinds of books because I am looking forward to what the next discoveries may be.

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