By Jon Mooallem, The New York Times, April 26, 2016
Effie, a western lowland gorilla in London in 2010, shortly after the death of a companion.Photo: Ruaridh Connellan/Barcroft Media — Getty Images
It used to happen every day at the London Zoo: Out came the dainty table and chairs, the china cups and saucers — afternoon tea, set out for the inhabitants of the ape enclosure to throw and smash. It was supposed to be amusing — a comic, reckless collision of beasts and high culture. But, as Frans de Waal explains in “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,” apes are actually innovative, agile tool-users. For example — one of many examples — wild chimps in Gabon have been observed employing five different tools, in a methodical sequence, to break open beehives, pry the chambers apart, scoop out the honey and convey it to their mouths. Not surprisingly — to de Waal, at least — the apes in London quickly mastered the teacups and teapot too. They sat there civilly, having tea.
“When the public tea parties began to threaten the human ego, something had to be done,” de Waal writes. “The apes were retrained to spill the tea, throw food around, drink from the teapot’s spout,” and so on. The animals had to be taught to be as stupid as we assumed they were. But, of course, the fact that they could be taught to be stupid is only more perverse evidence of their intelligence.
For centuries, our understanding of animal intelligence has been obscured in just this kind of cloud of false assumptions and human egotism. De Waal, a primatologist and ethologist who has been examining the fuzzy boundary between our species and others for 30 years, painstakingly untangles the confusion, then walks us through research revealing what a wide range of animal species are actually capable of. Tool use, cooperation, awareness of individual identity, theory of mind, planning, metacognition and perceptions of time — we now know that all these archetypically human, cognitive feats are performed by some animals as well. And not just primates: By the middle of Chapter 6, we’re reading about cooperation among leopard coral trout. (The book’s main weakness is that de Waal has too much evidence, from too many corners of the animal kingdom, to convince us with; eventually, it feels a little repetitive — we’re not at all surprised that the bonobo knows to look in the stupid tube for the piece of food.)
Frankly, it all deals a pretty fierce wallop to our sense of specialness. And it can provoke some desperate resistance. De Waal quotes one American psychologist, insistently holding the line of our humanness at our ability, even as children, to work together toward a shared goal: “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together,” the psychologist says. But then, 25 apes at a Dutch zoo prop a tree trunk against the wall of their enclosure, climb out and raid the restaurant. What is true, it becomes clear, is that you’ll never see animals doing such intelligent things if you smugly refuse to look for them, or — and this is de Waal’s real point — if you don’t know how to look.
De Waal argues that we should attempt to understand a species’ intelligence only within its own context, or umwelt: the animal’s “self-centered subjective world, which represents only a small tranche of all available worlds.” There are many different forms of intelligence; each should be valuated only relative to its environment. “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,” de Waal writes. (A squirrel’s life is about remembering where it stored its nuts; its intelligence is geospatial intelligence.) And yet, there’s apparently a long history of scientists ignoring this truth. For example, they’ve investigated chimpanzees’ ability to recognize faces by testing whether the chimps can recognize human faces, instead of faces of other chimps. (They do the former poorly and the latter quite well.) They’ve performed the famous mirror test — to gauge whether an animal recognizes the figure in a mirror as itself — on elephants using a too-small, human-size mirror. Such blind spots are, ultimately, a failure of empathy — a failure to imagine the experiment, or the form of intelligence it’s testing for, through the animal’s eyes. De Waal compares it to “throwing both fish and cats into a swimming pool” and seeing who can swim.
We sometimes fall into what de Waal calls “neo-creationist” thinking: We accept evolution but assume “evolution stopped at the human head” — believing our bodies may have evolved from monkeys, but that our brains are their own miraculous and discrete inventions. But cognition must be understood as an evolutionary product, like any other biological phenomenon; it exists on a spectrum, de Waal argues, with familiar forms shading into absolutely alien-looking ones. He introduces what he calls the rule of “cognitive ripples”: We tend to notice intelligence in primates because it’s most conspicuous. It looks the most like our intelligence. But “after the apes break down the dam between the humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, the floodgates often open to include species after species.”
And that brings us to bird smarts, and the science journalist Jennifer Ackerman’s lovely, celebratory survey, “The Genius of Birds.”
Somehow, it’s hard to imagine these cognitive ripples rippling anywhere weirder than a bird. Look closely at one: how it chirps and twitches and flies. It’s chastening to imagine a comprehensible intelligence operating inside a body so different from ours. And then there’s the issue of scale: There are as many as 400 billion birds flitting around the planet; pondering their individual, perspicacious consciousnesses can be jaw-dropping, almost sublime. But, Ackerman writes, “One by one, the bellwether differences between birds and our closest primate relatives seem to be falling away.”
Ackerman writes about birds’ genius for wayfinding; their memories; the neuro-scientific overlap of bird song and human language; avian architecture (a bird called the long-tailed tit builds a nest out of “roughly 6,000 pieces”); their canny, sophisticated social intelligence, their social learning and the evidence of their empathy. She goes to New Caledonia, an island between Australia and Fiji, where “free from the burden of vigilance” — against predators — a race of crows can futz and experiment with the materials around them until they’ve fashioned all kinds of hooklike, food-procuring tools. They’re like Silicon Valley start-up founders, aimlessly tinkering and disrupting on a cushion of privilege.
Like de Waal, Ackerman wants us to “appreciate the complex cognitive abilities of birds in their own right and not because they look like some aspect of our own.” Scientists see innovation as a key measure of intelligence in the avian world: the sparrow that builds its nest in the tailpipe of an abandoned Toyota; the bullfinches in Barbados, which Ackerman discovers have learned to snatch the sugar packets from outdoor cafes as though snagging worms from dirt — these are small exertions of “genius,” Ackerman writes, a talent for “catching on” to your surroundings and exploiting them. And for all the belittling of “bird brains,” she shows them to be uniquely impressive machines within their own evolutionary contexts — unrecognizably so to science, at first, because, though they have equally high concentrations of neurons, they’re quite differently designed from our primate brains. (And, Ackerman explains, that’s because bird brains are dinosaur brains! Really!) Here’s one scientist’s Zen-like distillation: “There’s the mammal way. And there’s the bird way” — two distinct cognitive operating systems, honed through convergent evolution.
The science gets mind-bending. If you want sentences like “Not only could the pigeons pick out a new Monet or Picasso, they could also tell other Impressionists (Renoir, for instance) from other Cubists (such as Braque),” then this is the book for you. And it’s elevated by Ackerman’s prose — the joy she takes in thinking and noticing. She homes in on “the taut, quick vitality that seems almost too much for their tiny bodies to contain” and describes a flock of 400 birds changing direction midflight as “almost instantaneous ripples of movement in what appears to be one living curtain of bird.”