Monday, July 19, 2021

Review of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = Psychology

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Elaborate Review
There is a lot of resistance for animal intelligence due to human ego and limited experimental ability.  Humans wanting to be the standard for intelligence prevents seeing different intelligence needs in animals.  Many cognitive tests are done without considering the animals perception of the world, its umwelt.  Animals given tools and tests that fit the way they interact with the world, show remarkable intelligence.  From culture to political struggles.  It is offensive to animals to call human misbehavior as acting like animals, because animals have a lot of self-restraint.  This book is not just about animals or psychology, it is also about the continuous struggle in science to get appropriate conclusions.

The two dominant schools of thought on animal research hold mechanical views about animals as either they are stimulus-response machines, or were genetically endowed with instincts.  Behaviorism sought human-control over the animal by placing the animal in barren environments that left little else to do than to participate in what the experimenter wanted.  If they did not behave as wanted, they were considered misbehaving.  Ethology was about natural behavior with the interest on what occurred spontaneously.  Behaviorist tented to be psychologist, while ethologist tented to be zoologists.  

Cognition is a process by which sensory input about the environment gets put into flexible application.  Intelligence is the success of cognition.  Words are not needed in thinking.   Each animal is specialized to live within its own ecology.  Having evolutionary developed many ways of thinking how to adept to the ecology.  Animals want to learn what they need to know by creating learning opportunities.  Not needing every possible adaptation, so they are not developed.  A cognitive ripple occurs within cognitive capacity as any discovered capacity is older and more widespread than initial thought.

Animal intelligence is on a continuum of variations rather than just between human and other animals.  Using humans as the standard for intelligence is misrepresenting the use of intelligence.  Although each species has ecological niches which consist of the habitat an organism needs to survive, each species also has an umwelt.  An umwelt is the subject world created by the organisms’ self-centered representation.  It is the way each species perceives the world.  

Observations depend on what questions are asked and how the experiments are set up.  Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  Not seeing a capacity in a species does not mean that the species does not have the capacity.  It is highly possible that the test missed something or the test did not fit the species.  Single observations, anecdotal evidence is not enough for conclusions, but they do inspire observations and experiments facilitate understandings that get closer to conclusions.

Before any tests, scientists need to understand the animal’s typical behavior.  Conditioning can help, but there are many unconditioned behaviors that can be brought about from the experiment even though the experiment cannot claim to have created the behaviors.   Testing an animal needs to consider the animal’s temperament, interests, anatomy, and sensory capacities.  A test cannot be expected to perform well when it that does not take account of the animal’s motivation and attention.

Testing animals using human standards rather than the species umwelten is wrong because different animals have either different uses for the same concepts, or not even need the concepts as there was no need to develop an understanding of that concept.  Animals are extraordinary in doing things that are needed from their perspective.  

Giving tests on animals who are not ready to take the test, due to anxiety or distractions, usually results in poor performance.   Measuring human children against apes in testing situations provides many false comparisons.  The human children not only get to interact with an experimenter of the same species, but they are usually accompanied by a parent, and other verbal supports.

Animals do talk to one another to find out about wants and information.  Depending on the animals, they can have very political and social lives.  From getting support for their future actions, to knowing how to reduce stress and bring about harmony.   Rather than being stuck in the present, animals can have very well developed learning practices that become needed only in the future.  They are able to test their abilities and improve upon them.  They even have culture as they can learn from one another.  

While anthropomorphism risks seeking human traits on animals, anthropodenial risks a priori rejecting human traits on animals.  Anthropomorphism can anthropodenial can help guide questions and direct attention if applied properly.  Anthropomorphism can help with animals that are very similar to humans.  Anthropodenial can help with animals that are very different to humans.

The book is well written with many stark examples that showcase animal intelligence.  More than animal intelligence, as many concepts can be applied to humans.  The problem with the book is that there are times that having some psychology background would make for easier reading.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book
•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?
•What is the different between the animal’s ecology, and its umwelt?
•What is cognition? 
•How should tests be done on animals?
•What do scientist need to have before testing on animals? 
•Do animals have social lives?
•Do animals engage in politics?
•Do animals have language? 
•What are the differences between the behaviorism and ethology schools of thought?
•What and how do animals learn? 
•How fair are the tests on animals against humans?
•What role does human ego play in the science of animal cognition? 
•What is the difference between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial?  

Book Details
Edition ISBN:  9780393246193
Pages to read:   241
Publication:     2017
1st Edition:      2016
Format:           eBook

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    4
Content          5
Overall           5