Book Reviews

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

Are we smart enoughMy first response was, “Sure, why not?” Just typing in a search for “smart animals” on the internet will result in lists and videos of animals doing amazing things. However, can humans put their personal bias and skewed testing methods aside to really get accurate information? This seems like the overall theme of the book.

As I read more and more of De Waal’s book, a Dutch primatologist and ethologist, I learned so many fascinating discoveries from the years he spent studying animals. Some of the information made my eyes gloss over. And there is A LOT to digest. Anecdotes, research stories and scientific terms regarding numerous species fill the pages. If you are very interested in animal research and the study of animal social behavior, cognitive and emotional capabilities, you will enjoy this.

Some thoughts I found interesting:

  • “The challenge is to find tests that fit an animal’s temperament, interest, anatomy, and sensory capacities.”
  • “Animals often know only what they need to know.”
  • “Instead of testing animals on abilities that we are particularly good at-our own species’ magic wells, such as language-why not test them on their specialized skills?”
  • Natural behavior versus conditioned responses: “The difference between behaviorism and ethology has always been one of human-controlled versus natural behavior. Behaviorists sought to dictate behavior by placing animals in barren environments in which they could do little else than what the experimenter wanted.”
  • Anthropodenial (a word he invented) vs.anthropomorphism
  • Using “perspective taking” (over empathy) when it comes to animals .

My favorite chapter was about the notion of the ability if animals could talk:

“Oddly enough, this particular desire must have passed me by, because I have never felt it. I am not wanting to hear what my animals have to say about themselves…Even with respect to my fellow humans, I am dubious that language tells us what is going on in their heads…But who says that what people tell us about themselves reveals actual emotions and motivations?

No one is going to admit to murderous thoughts, stinginess, or being a jerk. People lie all the time, so why would they stop in front of a psychologist who writes down everything they say?…I am in fact relieved to work with subjects that don’t talk. I don’t need to worry about the truth of their utterances.”

Again, this is a really fascinating book about what animals are capable of with sixty-five pages of notes at the end of the book. De Waal is a primatologist so the majority of the stories, research and experiments are conducted with primates. Birds, elephants, bees and even *octopodes make an appearance but I was really hoping to hear more about domestic animals like dogs and cats who take up residence in most households.

If you are a die-hard animal person with a curiosity about animal intelligence and anecdotes galore, pick this up. If you are just a wee bit curious but not ready for a textbook experience, watch this TED Talk with De Waal’s presentation about Moral Behavior in Animals. I wish this whole book was presented via video or in a TED Talk. I’m such a visual learner that once I watched it, his sense of humor and voice came out through the book. It’s fascinating and hilarious. It’s only fifteen minutes and I guarantee the experiment at the end with the Capuchin monkeys is worth it.

*I HAD to use octopodes after watching the video on Merriam-Webster, which I have been visiting a lot lately with the kids. It’s a fun site.

I picked up a copy of Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal at my local library. It is 352 pages and was released on April 25, 2016 by W.W. Norton & Company.




3 thoughts on “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal

  1. I loved both the video about the plural of Octopus (I didn’t know that!) and the TED talk! Now I’m trying to decide if I’m a die-hard animal person or not. Hmm. I think it would be best to watch more videos about the animals. The experiments are fun to watch, although I did feel really bad for the monkey who wanted the grapes. I don’t think I could be the person conducting the experiment – I would have given in the first time and given him a grape.

  2. I was super intrigued by this book when I saw it on your library stack. I’m bookmarking the TED talk for sure, and will see if I end up cycling back around to the book. Do you think it would transcribe to audio well, or would all the notes be cumbersome to listen to and keep track of?

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