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


BEST ANIMAL SCIENCE BOOK OF 2017 AWARD GOES TO: Are we Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? My favorite primatologist, Frans da Waal, has published his best book to date. In this animal kingdom page turner, he questions the fundamental assumptions of what makes humans unique. He tears apart out-dated behavioralists arguments that learning happens through incentives with a new approach from evolutionary cognition that says each species learns what it needs to survive in its environment - in what he calls BIOL (Bonding & Identification Based Learning). 

My favorite sections were learning about convergent evolution tidbits - such as birds and humans share over 50 genes for vocal expression! WTF!  Or that squids and humans have very similar camera eyes due to tweaks in our shared Pax6 gene. 

There’s a great section on the Japanese pioneering the study of primates along their social networks. They did things like giving monkeys names, letting them live in their social groups in the lab, and tracking them through generations—all things that were looked down upon by Western scientists. 

He ends the book urging scientists to take a conspecific approach--testing species with models of its own kind as opposed to forcing human models on non-human species - essentially the fundamental idea behind umvelt - an animal’s POV. 

Now I'm wondering how do our changing views on learning in animals (from behaviorism to evolutionary cognition) shift the way we design AI? If we are now seeing that learning happens in context, even among animals, does that change the way we design and view the our AI and human future? 

Best part is that the book contains tons of great pictures. Here's a selection of them below the quotes. 

“But what about skeptics who believe that animals are by definition trapped in the present, and only humans contemplate the future? Are they making a reasonable assumption, or are they blinkered as to what animals are capable of? And why is humanity so prone to downplay animal intelligence? We routinely deny them capacities that we take for granted in ourselves. What is behind this? In trying to find out at what mental level other species operate, the real challenge comes not just from the animals themselves but also from within us. Human attitudes, creativity, and imagination are very much part of the story. Before we ask if animals possess a certain kind of intelligence, especially one that we cherish in ourselves, we need to overcome internal resistance to even consider the possibility. Hence this book’s central question: “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?…For most of the last century, science was overly cautious and skeptical about the intelligence of animals. Attributing intentions and emotions to animals was seen as naïve “folk” nonsense.” pp. 3-4

“Instead, Umwelt stresses an organism’s self-centered, subjective world, which represents only a small tranche of all available worlds.” p. 8

“Cognition is the mental transformation of sensory input into knowledge about the environment and the flexible application of this knowledge. While the term cognition refers to the process of doing this, intelligence refers more to the ability to do it successfully.” pp. 10-11

“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. p. 12

“There are lots of wonderful cognitive adaptations out there that we don’t have or need. This is why ranking cognition on a single dimension is a pointless exercise. Cognitive evolution is marked by many peaks of specialization. The ecology of each species is key.” p. 12

“Anyone who wishes to stress an alternative claim about an animal’s cognitive capacities either needs to familiarize him- or herself with the species in question or make a genuine effort to back his or her counterclaim with data. p. 53

“The eventual international embrace of the Japanese approach illustrates something else that we learned from the tale of two schools—ethology and comparative psychology—psychology—which is that the initial animosity between divergent approaches can be overcome if we realize that each has something to offer that the other lacks. We may weave them together into a new whole that is stronger than the sum of its parts. The fusing of complementary strands is what makes evolutionary cognition the promising approach it is today. But sadly it took a century of misunderstandings and colliding egos before we got there. p. 61

“my cognitive ripple rule: Every cognitive capacity that we discover is going to be older and more widespread than initially thought.” p. 93

“first and foremost advantage of language is to transmit information that transcends the here and now. There is great survival value in communication about things that are absent or events that have happened or are about to happen. p. 107

“Critical pieces such as power alliances (politics) and the spreading of habits (culture), as well as empathy and fairness (morality), are detectable outside our species. The same holds for capacities underlying language. Honeybees, for example, accurately signal distant nectar locations to the hive, and monkeys may utter calls in predictable sequences that resemble rudimentary syntax. The most intriguing parallel is perhaps referential signaling. Vervet monkeys on the plains of Kenya have distinct alarm calls for a leopard, eagle, or snake. These predator-specific calls constitute a life-saving communication system, because different dangers demand different responses. p. 107

“We make a big deal of our bipedal locomotion, for example, while ignoring the many animals, from chickens to hopping kangaroos, that move the same way. At some savanna sites, bonobos walk entire distances upright through tall grass, making confident strides like humans.2 Bipedalism is really not as special as it has been made out to be.”  pp. 120-121)

“It allows us to look at a situation from the viewpoint of another, which is why I prefer the term perspective taking. We use this capacity to our own advantage but also to the advantage of others, such as when we respond to someone else’s distress or fulfill the needs of another person. Empathic perspective taking, defined by the father of economics, Adam Smith, as “changing places in fancy with the sufferer,” is well known outside of our species, including dramatic cases of apes, elephants, or dolphins helping one another under dire circumstances. I speak of targeted helping, which is assistance based on an appreciation of the other’s precise circumstances.” p 132-133

“‘[conspecific approach] Clearly, it is time for us to start testing animals in accordance with their biology and move away from human-centric approaches. Instead of making the experimenter the chief model or partner, we better keep him or her in the background. Only by testing apes with apes, wolves with wolves, and children with human adults can we evaluate social cognition in its original evolutionary context.” p. 156

“Adding animals to the mix is bound to stimulate the up-and-coming field of “embodied cognition,” which postulates that cognition reflects the body’s interactions with the world. Until now, this field has been rather human-focused while failing to take advantage of the fact that the human body is only one of many. Consider the elephant. It combines a very different body with the brainpower to achieve high cognition. What is the largest land mammal doing with three times as many neurons as our own species? One may downplay this number, arguing that it has to be corrected for body mass, but such corrections are more suited to brain weight than to number of neurons. In fact, it has been proposed that absolute neuron count, regardless of brain or body size, best predicts a species’ mental powers.” pp. 159-160

“The intelligence required to effectively deal with social networks may explain why the primate order underwent its remarkable brain expansion.” p. 176

“It has become commonplace to assert that only humans truly understand how cooperation works or know how to handle competition and freeloading. Animal cooperation is presented as mostly based on kinship, as if mammals were social insects. This idea was quickly disproven when fieldworkers analyzed DNA extracted from the feces of wild chimpanzees, which allowed them to determine genetic relatedness. They concluded that the vast majority of mutual aid in the forest occurs between unrelated apes.32 Captive studies have shown that even strangers—primates who didn’t know each other before they were put together—can be enticed to share food or exchange favors.” p. 187

“Tulving proposed two criteria to recognize future planning. First, the behavior should not follow directly from present needs and desires. Second, it should prepare the individual for a future situation in a different context than the current one. p. 213

“Traditionally, animals are depicted as slaves of their emotions. It all goes back to the dichotomy of animals as “wild” and humans as “civilized.” Being wild implies being undisciplined, crazy even, without holding back. Being civilized, in contrast, refers to exercising the well-mannered restraint that humans are capable of under favorable circumstances. This dichotomy lurks behind almost every debate about what makes us human, so much so that whenever humans behave badly, we call them “animals.” Desmond Morris once told me an amusing story to drive this point home. At the time Desmond 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.” pp. 222-223

“…growing evidence in other species for episodic memory, future planning, and delayed gratification. Either we abandon the idea that these capacities require consciousness, or we accept the possibility that animals may have it, too…The fourth spoke on this wheel is metacognition, which is literally cognition about cognition, also known as “thinking about thinking.”…Metacognition rests on an executive function in the brain that allows one to monitor one’s own memory. Again, we associate these processes with consciousness, which is exactly why metacognition, too, was deemed unique to our species…What is the price of holding information in mind?…Rob, the big question in relation to consciousness is why we actually need it. What is it good for? After all, there are lots of things we can do unconsciously.” p 229-233

“It discovered that these animals are aware of thunderstorms at enormous distances and adjust their travel routes to precipitation days before it actually arrives…Cognition and perception cannot be separated, though. They go hand in hand. As the father of cognitive psychology, Ulric Neisser, put it: “the world of experience is produced by the man who experiences it.”4 Since the late Neisser was a colleague of mine, I know that nonhuman minds were not his foremost interest, yet he refused to view animals as mere learning machines. The behaviorist program was ill suited to all species, he felt, not just ours. Instead, he emphasized perception and how it is turned into experience by picking and choosing what sensory input to pay attention to and how to process and organize it. Reality is a mental construct. This is what makes the elephant, the bat, the dolphin, the octopus, and the star-nosed mole so intriguing. They have senses that we either don’t have, or that we have in a much less developed form, making the way they relate to their environment impossible for us to fathom. They construct their own realities.” p. 23

“…elephants make sophisticated distinctions regarding potential enemies to the point that they classify our own species based on language, age, and gender.” p. 240

“To our surprise, chimps turn out to be conformists. Copying others for one’s own benefit is one thing, but wanting to act like everybody else is quite another. It is the foundation of human culture…habit spread socially as opposed to genetically…social learning is more about fitting in and acting like others than about rewards.” p252-258

“Tetsuro Matsuzawa, who studied nut-cracking in West African chimpanzees, views social learning as based on a devoted master-apprentice relationship, in the same way that I developed my Bonding- and Identification-based Observational Learning model (BIOL).44 Both views reject the traditional focus on incentives and replace it with one on social connections. Animals strive to act like others, especially others whom they trust and feel close to. Conformist biases shape society by promoting the absorption of habits and knowledge accumulated by previous generations.” p. 259

“This is why evolutionary cognition is such a perfect label for our field, because only evolutionary theory can make sense of survival, ecology, anatomy, and cognition all at once. Instead of searching for a general theory that covers all cognition on the planet, it treats every species as a case study. p. 270

“…learning is dictated by biology…7 Given the absolute hegemony of behaviorism at the time, it made sense to define cognition in opposition to learning, but this always strikes me as a mistake. This dichotomy is as false as the one that pits nature against nurture. The reason we rarely talk about instincts anymore is that nothing is purely genetic: the environment always plays a role. In the same way, pure cognition is a figment of the imagination. Where would cognition be without learning? Some sort of information gathering is always part of it.” p. 271

“Nowadays many scientists studying animal behavior proudly put the word cognitive in statements about their research, and scientific journals add this trendy term to their names, realizing that it attracts more readers than any other in behavioral biology. The cognitive view has won. But an assumption is still only an assumption. It doesn’t absolve us from working hard on the issues at hand, which is to determine at what cognitive level a given species operates and how this suits its ecology and lifestyle. What are its cognitive strengths, and how do these relate to survival? It all goes back to the kittiwake story: some species need to recognize their young and others just don’t. The first will pay attention to individual identities, while the second can safely ignore them. Or recall how Garcia’s nauseated rats broke the rules of operant conditioning, as if to drive home the point that remembering toxic food is a magnitude more important than knowing which bar delivers pellets. Animals learn what they need to learn and have specialized ways of sifting through the massive information around them. They actively seek, collect, and store information. They are often incredibly good at one particular task, such as caching and remembering food items or fooling predators, whereas some species are endowed with the brainpower to tackle a wide array of problems. p. 269-270


Tricia Wanganimal, frans de waal, book