Thursday, June 23, 2016


"The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind." ~Charles Darwin

I finished this book several weeks ago and have had a difficult time figuring out how to write about it. Author Frans de Waal has summed up the premise with that lengthy title, but the execution of the premise is multi-faceted. It's fascinating, to be sure, especially for those of us who believe animals capable of more cognition than they've historically been given credit for, particularly in Science Land.

Yes, there are those of us who tend to be more anthropomorphic than others (anyone name their cars or other inanimate objects - show of hands?). This doesn't mean you've been wrong about animals. They are more than "stimulus-response machines" or "robots genetically endowed with useful instincts" and humans have been a bit more than merely egocentric when it comes to handing out awards for intelligence. What de Waal has done in Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is point out (1) just how smart many animals really are and (2) how we need to smarten ourselves up since many of our testing techniques have been flawed.

It's one thing to put an animal through a set of tests intended to measure its cognition. It's yet another to acknowledge the fact that cognition might exist that's different than our own (great discussion on Umwelt) and a need exists test animals in a way that accurately represents their cognitive abilities.

In other words, is it really fair to test the intelligence of a chimp using tests intended to measure the intelligence of children? Of course, chimps often kick human ass in some of those tests anyway, but the point is made. We need to set aside our egos and be smart enough to create tests that accurately measure the intelligence of different species of animals.

Short example: Chimps were thought to lack the ability to recognize faces when shown photographs of various people. Someone eventually wised up and began showing chimps pictures of other chimps, and it became clear chimps could recognize other chimps just as we do other people. We got smart enough to figure out how smart they really are.

In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, de Waal discusses different schools of thought regarding animal intelligence and the history of discourse between them. He also, as a proponent of viewing human cognition as a variety of animal cognition (we are, after all, animals), shares a number of animal cognitive discoveries over the past twenty years that highlight the idea that perhaps we're not quite as special (or alone in our cognition, at least) as we think we are.

The studies and discoveries presented by de Waal come from various scientists studying different species, in order to provide an overview of advancements in the field using both testing and observational methods. Most of it is quite engrossing, some of it surprising, and all of it educational. These portions were the highlight of the book for me.

Overall, I didn't often feel overwhelmed by the content, but did at times feel I was getting mired in the length and breadth of it. A few times I found myself feeling like it was too much and/or too long. In those instances, I just picked and chose which issues I wanted to read in depth. The book is written in a fairly engaging manner, despite some of the heady material. If you're at all interested in these issues, de Waal generally did a great job presenting the material for various levels of knowledge and interest.

My friend Marisa over at The Daily Dosage also recently reviewed this book and we had somewhat similar experiences. But her review, found here, also includes a neat list of interesting nuggets of information she pulled from the text, along with a link to a TED Talk video of de Waal's presentation on Moral Behavior in Animals. Go check it out Marisa's review for another viewpoint and extra source material on the subject.

STREET SENSE:  If you are into animals, science, and intelligence issues presented in an engaging and fairly straight-forward manner, even infused with a little humor, I recommend de Waal's work. Even if you just wanted to skim through and read the studies, this book would be worth the read, it's really compelling stuff.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  And why is humanity so prone to downplay animal intelligence? We routinely deny them capacities that we take for granted in ourselves. What is behind this? In trying to find out at what mental level other species operate, the real challenge comes not just from the animals themselves but also from within us. Human attitudes, creativity, and imagination are very much part of the story. Before we ask if animals possess a certain kind of intelligence, especially one that we cherish in ourselves, we need to overcome internal resistance to even consider the possibility. Hence this book's central question: "Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?"

Couldn't resist this one as well, which kind of sums up the whole shebang in one fell swoop:

However good our relations with apes, the idea that we can test them in exactly the same way we test children is an illusion of the same order as someone throwing both fish and cats into a swimming pool and believing he is treating them the same way.

COVER NERD SAYS:  A big cat and a title that (however long and ungainly) intimates we're going to delve into animal intelligence? Doesn't take much more than that to suck me in. This cover isn't something I'd hang on my wall, but it certainly gets the job done. Part of me thinks the title could have been a bit less of a mouthful, but then again, it sums up what the book is about pretty much to a "T," so I really can't take that much issue with it.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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