Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Genres: Natural Science, Science
Format: Paperback
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
by Frans De Waal
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781783783069
Publication Date: July 26, 2017
Pages: 340
Genre: Science
Publisher: Granta Books

Short answer:  no, of course we’re not.  For a lot of reasons, but mostly because of thousands of years of cultural confirmation bias.

For the long answer, you can’t go wrong reading this book.  De Waal writes a very readable treatise on the subject – where we started regarding our beliefs about animal intelligence, and how we got to where we are today, using a well balanced blend of anecdotes and scientific experiments.  While his area of study is primatology, he also delves into research conducted by colleagues on birds, elephants, dogs, a few fish wales, dolphins, and the octopus.  He systematically addresses each of the arguments that have been made as to what sets humans apart, and how these arguments have been torn down by research over time.

The book didn’t get the full 5 stars because, oddly enough, I felt De Waal was being too politic about at least one question: why are researchers, scientists and laypeople so historically stubborn about insisting that humans are above, and superior to, all other animals?  To me, that answer is obvious, though I can see why scientists equate objectivity with atheism.  The truth of the matter is that the Western world has been culturally inculcated by Judeo-Christian teachings, whether scientists like it or not, on such a fundamental level, that I doubt many are aware of it.  Specifically, Genesis 1:28:

And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.

Personally – and this is just me – I’ve always had doubts about the original translation of Gen. 1:28 – specifically the words “subdue” and “rule”; I have to wonder if the original language wasn’t closer to something akin to ‘guard’ or ‘protect’, given that Earth may be our home, but it isn’t our house, so to speak.  And while I’m going a bit off topic here, I’ll also just say that I do believe that God gave us something that separates us from the other animals: free will.  In all my readings and my meagre experiences, we’re the only animals that can choose to be evil for the sake of being evil; we’re the only animals that can choose to hurt ourselves; we’re the only animals that will push our own boundaries just for the sake of pushing them.

Anyway – back on topic – De Waal doesn’t address deeply embedded cultural bias, which struck me as odd.  But that’s really my only niggling objection.  Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found much in it that made me think hard about animal intelligence and what it means to be aware of self, others and our surroundings.  But then again, I’m his audience:  I have always believed animals are smart, aware, and cognisant and that humans have never been as special as we think we are.

2 thoughts on “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”

  1. Re “subdue”, “rule”, or “have dominion over” – I’ve seen various translations of this. I have often wondered the same question as you here. I also wondered whether the original wording conveyed more of a sense of custodianship. But equally, I would wonder if that concept of custodianship would have been embraced at the “time of writing” when mankind was still very much at the mercy of so many natural forces. (I mean, we still are, of course, but technology has helped to almost forget that until you’re close to a fire or storm or swarm of seagulls… I digress.)

    1. Custodianship was the word I was looking for when I wrote this up – or guardianship; neither word would come out from hiding in the recesses of my brain. Whether it was embraced or not – I guess I’d have to fall on the side of ‘probably not’. I think our original sin was hubris.

      And it’s easy to digress on this topic; the avenues of digression are legion. It was hard not writing a treatise myself instead of a summation of my thoughts about the book.

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