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Animals Have Culture Too!

In his new book, Frans de Waal dismantles our enduring obsession with proving that we’re smarter than animals.

By Louise Fabiani


(Photo: Desirey Minkoh//AFP/Getty Images)

For people (and peoples) whose identity hinges on being the center of the universe, science is a drag. Five centuries ago, Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei toppled the official geocentric model of the cosmos. Charles Darwin eventually came along, cheeky enough to suggest that humans are just another animal — differing only in adaptive capacity — giving the anthropocentric crowd a new reason to complain. To this day, in popular circles and academe alike, there is still that search for something, anything, that sets us apart from other animals. We want to feel special.*

Renowned primatologist Frans de Waal repeatedly addresses this human obsession with being uniquely human in his new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?De Waal never speculates about why our self-esteem is so contingent on drawing a firm line between ourselves and our closest primate relatives (and, by extension, every other organism). But it is amusing and instructive, in this volume, to watch him dismantle this peculiar monomania with one captivating example after another.

De Waal clearly loves animals, not just the chimpanzees and bonobos he has studied for decades as a professor in psychology at Emory University. Yet, as in his previous works, such as 2001’s The Ape and the Sushi Master, not a whit of sentimentality colors his arguments. Courage in one’s convictions; rigorous experiments; strong scholarship in the field; and a soupçon of humor: These are the best ammunition for shooting down the arguments of anthropocentric opponents — including ideological antagonists within the field of animal behavior research.

The main take-away from this book is that animals are not inadequate humans; they are as intelligent as they need to be to survive in their particular ecological niches.

“Cognitive ripples spread from apes to monkeys to dolphins, elephants, and dogs, followed by birds, reptiles, fish, and sometimes invertebrates. This historical progression is not to be confused with a scale with Hominids on top,” de Waal says, referring to the Darwin-era image of a Victorian gentleman at the apex of evolution. “I rather view it as an ever-expanding pool of possibilities in which the cognition of, say, an octopus may be less astonishing than that of any given mammal or bird.”

The list of traits that supposedly distinguish us from other animals is a long one, but de Waal and fellow biologists like Carl Safina provide counterpoints to almost all. Empathy, planning, delayed gratification, subterfuge, theory of mind, problem solving: De Waal finds one or more examples of species that possess at least one of these “uniquely human” characteristics.

The one exception, at least to de Waal, is language. He decries our obsession, starting in the 1960s, with testing animals’ abilities to communicate with us in some linguistically recognizable fashion, “as if all questions about animal intelligence boiled down to a sort of Turing test: can we, humans, hold a sensible conversation with them?” De Waal prefers to see animals on their own terms, to judge their intelligence levels vis-à-vis their particular needs. “I am not convinced of [language ’s] role in the thinking process,” he writes.

While de Waal’s area of expertise is primatology, he hardly limits himself to great apes. Take Alex, the famous African grey parrot (now deceased), whose command of spoken language enabled his handler, Irene Pepperberg, to prove he did more than “parrot”: He could count and also conceptualize abstractions like geometric shape, sameness vs. difference, and color. Several species of corvids (crows and their kin) create simple tools and have some grasp of Archimedes’ Principle. Even studying invertebrates challenges our complacent assumptions. Octopuses can escape enclosures, unscrew jars, and recognize people. “A mollusk collecting tools,” de Waal says, “goes to show how far we have come since the days when technology was thought to be [uniquely human].”


Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Photo: W.W. Norton & Company)

The real stars in de Waal’s book are, unsurprisingly, apes and monkeys. Lab-acquired skills, such as competence in American Sign Language, have brought a measure of fame to Koko the gorilla and a number of chimpanzees. Other primates exhibit astute social intelligence to a degree that still makes news (but probably should be old hat by now). Monkeys grieve, and have a sense of fair play. Chimpanzees constantly jockey for position within the group hierarchy, sometimes displaying “political” behavior, like peacekeeping between sparring parties and ingratiation with leaders.

If we spent all our resources studying this one species, the chimpanzee — our closest kin — we would still fall short of proper understanding. The young Jane Goodall’s work in Gombe, Tanzania, in the early 1960s opened that study to the world, and her field observations of tool use among wild chimpanzees was just short of revolutionary. Nearly 60 years on (she is now 82), it is rather astonishing to realize that no one had successfully challenged the man-as-toolmaker dogma before her. When Goodall presented her findings to her sponsor and mentor, anthropologist Louis Leakey, he famously declared: “I feel that scientists holding to this definition are faced with three choices. They must accept chimpanzees as man, they must re-define man, or they must re-define tools.”

No one has yet made that call, but at least chimpanzee tool use is widely accepted as fact. Some activists at home and abroad are now calling for legislation protecting chimpanzees as persons.

“I feel that scientists holding to this definition are faced with three choices. They must accept chimpanzees as man, they must re-define man, or they must re-define tools.”

Goodall’s breakthrough, as de Waal relates, came when she watched her group fish for termites with specially prepared twigs. In separate sites, other chimps still use stones to smash open nutritious nuts. Individuals carry clearly selected stones to distant nut-bearing trees. They know that extracting nut meat requires tools and brute strength. They also think ahead and bring their (heavy) tools with them instead of hoping to find them on site.

This remarkable behavior also established the existence of chimpanzee culture. One group, but not another, adopts nut-cracking, passing it along to their young. Another prefers to fill up on termites, which among chimps qualifies as a highly rich food. This cultural distinction is analogous to one human society choosing bread as a dietary staple, while another prefers rice. Each is perfectly capable of acquiring the other’s habits, but habitat and food availability shape communal tastes. Food preferences are strongly (if not entirely) cultural.

De Waal’s most colorful example of cultural transmission involves a large monkey, the Japanese macaque. Decades ago, a scientist started tossing sweet potatoes to a troupe of macaques hanging out by a Japanese geothermal spring. A mature female was the first to investigate the strange food, and first to wash the slightly soiled tubers in river water before eating. (She later dipped them in seawater, which had the added benefit of salting the treats.) The female’s offspring imitated her. Bit by bit, the practice spread, and almost all the macaques now wash their sweet potatoes.

Many populations of primates around the world are threatened, endangered, or close to extirpation (local extinction). Not only does the loss of each community bring the entire species that much closer to the brink of oblivion; it can also signal the end of a unique subculture — much as the death of a particular human language is thought to wipe out a distinct worldview. With each little tragedy, the world’s diversity diminishes further.

The key to getting over ourselves, de Waal emphasizes, is to take on an animal’s umwelt, or worldview. It’s kind of like trying to walk in another person’s shoes. (Except, there are no shoes — and there may not be any feet.) We rely heavily on vision compared to our other senses, for example, but we should never forget how other animals employ hearing, or olfaction as their primary sense, while others — sometimes totally blind, in fact — navigate the world entirely through touch. We have to remember there are many doors to perception, not just the one marked with binocular vision.

The main take-away from this book is that animals are not inadequate humans; they are as intelligent as they need to be to survive in their particular ecological niches. Elephants on the African savannah can predict rain by detecting far-off thunder through their feet, but that skill is of little use to manatees, their distant, marine relatives. Recognizing members of their flock benefits domesticated sheep, but it might not matter so much to their wild relatives. Chimpanzees that successfully supplement their seasonally available fruit diet with nuts and/or termites — that is, gathering food with the use of tools — ingest nine times as many kilocalories of energy as they expend obtaining that food. Other (smaller) fruit-eating primates, in comparison, turn to more easily caught insects, such as grubs, in times of need. Until their ecological conditions change radically, each does perfectly fine in its own way.

The answer to the question in de Waal’s title is a qualified “yes, we are smart enough, probably.” The problem is that merely being “smart” is only part of the issue. The heart must be willing to expand its circle of concern, and approach the animal world with humility and respect. We are as capable of determining animal intelligence, in general, as we are of substantively reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The real question ought to be: How many of our firmly entrenched views are we willing to change first?



*Update— June 13, 2016: This post has been updated to correct an inaccurate characterization of the anthropic principle.