Book Review: Frans de Waal – Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Frans de Waal – Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (New York: W.W. Norton, 2017).

The short answer to the title’s question is kind of, but not really. We can never truly get into even another human being’s head. It is impossible to tell is someone else sees the color red the same way you do, or feels hot and cold the same way. It is also clearly impossible to do this across species, which have different sensory thresholds–and in some cases, different senses–than we do.

But de Waal’s core argument is more about empathy and decency. You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat animals. By building up a persuasive case that animals have complex intellectual and emotional lives, de Waal gives good reasons for treating other species with respect. We are them, and they are us. Or, at least, we’re a lot closer than most people think.

Humans have three types of cone cells in our eyes to perceive colors, hence our three primary colors; birds have four. Mantis shrimp have 17. We will never see the world as they do. Cats and other nocturnal animals have more types of rod cells than humans do. These detect black-and-white and relative brightness, and are useful for low-light conditions. Insects have compound eyes, which are very different from our camera-style eyes. Butterflies can see ultraviolet light, which they use to assess potential mates. The UV-reflective scales on their wings wear away with age, so abundant UV reflections on their wings are indicators of youth and health for them, though humans will never know this.

But these differences are no reason to believe such animals lack intelligence. We do the same things ourselves, just in a different way. All animals live by the same four Fs: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and mating. We have evolved different ways of going about it, but the fundamentals are the same.

De Waal is also concerned with emotions. And yes, animals do feel many of the same emotions humans do. And again, our differences are more of degree than of kind. Animals feel pain, love, loss, hunger, and happiness. Maybe not in exactly the same way we do, but they do feel them.

Elephants and other animals mourn their dead, and even hold funeral services. Blood chemistry tests show that yes, your cat really does love you. Interactions with their owners release the exact same oxytocin “love hormone” that shows up in human blood when we interact with our loved ones.

Chimpanzees and bonobos—de Waal’s research specialty—have complicated social dynamics that require sophisticated emotional intelligence. They have similar notions of family and friendship, and they form complicated three-way alliances and rivalries that are very similar to the ones human nation-states build to maintain a balance of powers within the group–or in our case, global geopolitics. Our cousins, with whom we share a common ancestor as recently as six or seven million years ago, are different than each other, and from us. But the fundamentals are the same, and deserve more respect from humans.


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