Are We Smart Enough To know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

The Audible recording isn’t quite enough here because there are hand drawn graphics with excellent explanatory captions,  formal source notes and other resources.   So I both read and listened and very much enjoyed the experience.

Frans de Waal is a well regarded Dutch primatologist and ethologist and has written many books and articles on the subjects.   This is my first and although I’m definitely NOT a reader of biology books it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Are We Smart Enough To know How Smart Animals Are? 
by Frans de Waal
2016 / 352 pages
read by Sean Runnette – 10h 42m
rating 9  /  biology (cognitive ethology )
(both read and listened)

Now this isn’t my favorite subject in nonfiction,  I wouldn’t pick it up while browsing in a bookstore, but it’s more interesting than I expected.

The author’s point is that behaviorism is no longer the operating assumption in the study of animal behavior.  The ideas of ethologists (animal behavior under natural conditions) are coming of age.

Remember back in school when we were taught to be careful not to anthropomorphize the behavior of animals?  –  No,  dogs don’t think – you’re putting human motivations, and behavior on animals and animals are lower in the hierarchy.  This is the gospel – except that Darwin had thought it was only a matter of degree – all this is a product of the 20th century,  Ivan Pavlov,  John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner.

Yes,  I also remember being taught that humans are the only animals that (_____) fill in the blank. It has to do with “anthropodenial” – a way of thinking that simply denies out of hand that humans and animals have shared characteristics.

The change in attitude you note is also a focal point of the book.  It’s been a huge,  mind-boggling change to think that humans aren’t the complete pinnacle of all intelligence.   It’s been the behaviorists (Skinner tests and experiments) vs the ethologists (naturalist observation) for several decades with the behaviorists definitely winning the game back when we were in school (1960s, ‘70s). But now the ethologists seem to be on top.   The author says he’s suggesting we need both.

That’s what the book is about.  The studies reported are usually but not always  in the natural environments of the animals so the results seem like anecdotes – but de Waal doesn’t have a problem with that.

de Waal has chapters on language,  measuring, social and cultural skills,  delayed gratification and talks a lot about mirrors and self-awareness. And he describes the activities of all sorts of animals from chimps to octopi, from whales to ravens.    I kept comparing what the animals could do with what my kindergarten students did.  (E.O. Wilson  did ants in “The Meaning of Human Existence” and other works.)

I’m not sure.  Behaviorism went way over the line – dogs and chimps and a whole lot of other animals  remember without benefit of language and they look like they’re performing with cognitive awareness (at least many species do).   The experiments Skinner (who was pretty radical) devised were often more like training – “parroting.”   On the other hand some of the generalizations de Waal’s studies come up with might not be enough on their own – more controlled experiments might need to be done.

Very glad I read it though – it makes a lot more sense than strict behaviorism and I like to think I’m up to date on things.  (chuckle)

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