Books in brief: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

October 13, 2016
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Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal (Granta, £14.99)

Many animals are highly intelligent—but human vanity stops us from appreciating it. This is the central claim of primatologist Frans de Waal’s new book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

De Waal argues that to understand an animal’s intelligence we must do our best to enter its umwelt—this is the animal’s own way of seeing the world. Failure to do this results in our concluding that animals are unable to perform tasks that, in fact, they are more than capable of.

It was once thought that elephants could not use tools. In experiments, elephants provided with sticks did not use them to reach food rewards. But researchers were approaching things in the wrong way. Elephants did not use these sticks as, held in their trunks, it stopped them smelling the food. When later provided with a different type of tool, they reached the reward without problem. De Waal, having decades of experience in the field, has seen many similar feats of animal ingenuity first-hand.

Poorly devised tests of animal intelligence are not our only problem. Sometimes, having devised good tests, we refuse to accept their results. De Waal makes painfully clear how often we have insisted on human exceptionalism when, on certain matters, we have evidence to the contrary.

But while the history of animal science is done wonderfully, the philosophy is not so good. The philosophical questions De Waal takes on—“Is human consciousness meaningfully different to animal consciousness?”, for example—are handled competently, but not dazzlingly. In this one respect, the reader is likely to leave a bit unsatisfied.