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Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

by Frans de Waal

(New Scientist)

HOW well can non-human animals think? Especially the brainiest ones - apes, elephants, crows and parrots? This question has long fascinated behavioural scientists and the public, so books with fresh answers are likely to find a willing audience.

Two of the latest explore the line dividing humans from the rest of the animal world and deal with many of the same observations and experiments on cognition, involving captive and wild animals. But the books' perspectives are so different that each tests the other in a way that strengthens the final outcome.

Frans de Waal's position is clear from the very title of his book: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Here he surveys the history of the research, and it doesn't reflect well on researchers. Until recently, most studies have measured animal intelligence by human standards, which is silly. 'It seems highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to 10 if counting is not really what a squirrel's life is about,' he writes, noting that squirrels (and some birds) show prodigious memories for where they have hidden nuts.

De Waal's book is full of examples of scientists asking the wrong question of their experimental subjects. For many years, researchers thought chimps were unable to recognise individual faces, but, as de Waal notes, the tests used photos of human faces. When his colleague used photos of chimp faces instead, the animals did just fine.

Elephants can't recognise themselves in a mirror? Sure they can - if you give them a mirror big enough to show more than just a leg or two. As researchers learn to design more appropriate IQ tests that meet the animals on their own terms, more and more claims about things only humans can do are proving false.

Citing example after fascinating example, and often drawing on his own decades of experience, de Waal makes a case for intellectual sophistication in many animals. Alex the African Grey parrot, who died in 2007, could be shown a mix of colours and shapes and correctly answer questions like 'how many green squares?' And wild chimps carry hammer stones for hours to crack nuts they only expect to find. Macaques will share food with a companion in their troop, unless they know he or she has recently eaten, which shows they understand others may have different feelings.

By the end, it's hard not to emerge with a fresh respect for the cognitive abilities of animals and the way these match their own particular lifestyles. And de Waal is such an engaging guide, sympathising so deeply with the animals he writes about, that the journey is a pleasure to make.

After this, Richard Byrne comes across as a bit of a buzzkill in Evolving Insight. Where de Waal's inclination is to give the animal the benefit of the doubt ('it is safer to doubt one's methods before doubting one's subjects,' he writes), Byrne takes a more sceptical position. Where de Waal tells charming, witty stories of particular animals and their behaviours, Byrne tends toward drier, more abstract ideas.

But readers who stay the course will find the journey worthwhile. Byrne's concern is with one particular part of the intellectual landscape, a skill he calls 'insight' - an animal's ability to form and manipulate ideas in its head. Many apparently sophisticated behaviours need not imply any insight at all, he argues. When a band of chimps cuts off every escape route from a tree and thus kills a monkey, it may look like a planned, coordinated act, but each chimp may simply be maximising its own chance of getting the monkey by finding a spot where it has no competitors. Similarly, seemingly insightful social awareness (say, recruiting higher-ranking allies to avoid being picked on) could be explained more simply by a good memory and quick learning.

Still, Byrne finds a small kernel of genuine insight in at least a few non-human animals: great apes, elephants, crows and perhaps whales and dolphins all recognise themselves in a mirror, show some empathy for others and some awareness of death. This suite of abilities suggests they have at least a minimal sense of self. It's reassuring that Byrne, for all his scepticism, ends up somewhere close to de Waal.

The most interesting part of Byrne's book, though, comes at the end, where he tries to understand why insight might have evolved in one lineage - the great apes - while it is lacking in monkeys. It can't be a matter of social complexity, because monkey societies are often just as large as those of apes.

Instead, he argues that insight helps apes learn the complex manual procedures - with or without tools - that help them process foods that none of their competitors can use. It's an intriguing idea, although he sidesteps the question of why elephants and crows, which don't process their food the same way, also show evidence of insight.

Never mind, it's all good food for thought. Literally.

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