Thinking Ourselves Kings

In Frans de Waal’s most recent book about animal cognition – Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) – he introduces to a general public many animal talents and capacities hitherto supposed unique to humans. His own specialism being primatology, he talks particularly about the social and political acumen of chimpanzees, forward planning among bonobos, reciprocal favours between capuchin monkeys, gorillas using tools, and so on. But he discusses also the skills of birds, cetaceans, octopuses, and many others.

The research which has revealed these accomplishments has often been picked up in media stories of the ‘smarter than we thought!’ genre. It’s a pity that the word ‘smart’, which in American English means simply ‘bright’ or ‘intelligent’, has in British English a suggestion of showiness or sophistication about it. For de Waal’s essential argument is that these various species have exactly the sort of intelligence which their situation in nature demands – intelligence developed for and within that situation, in fact. That’s what is implied in the term which he prefers for his branch of biology: evolutionary cognition. De Waal’s account of the ‘Kluger Hans’ story makes the point very well. Hans was famous in the early 20th century as a horse that could do sums, until a psychologist called Oskar Pfungst studied the performance and found that Hans was getting his cues for the answers from his unwitting trainer. The showy maths meant nothing to Hans, but understanding the body language of his trainer was a vital skill in which he had surpassed both his trainer and all their audiences.

The study which Pfungst then published did much to improve the techniques of experimental psychology. However, the Hans story was commonly understood as a caution against anthropomorphism, and therefore had the effect also, so de Waal says, of sanctioning a more sceptical and reductivist account of animal intelligence. At any rate there did follow what he calls the “this bleak period” for most of the 20th century, when (with the notable exception of Konrad Lorenz and his school of ethologists) the idea of intelligence or emotion in animals was dismissed as unscientific romance. In its place came the animal as mechanism: “the two dominant schools of thought viewed animals as either stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment or as robots genetically endowed with useful instincts.” [4]

But in the case of behaviourism – the stimulus-response school led by B.F.Skinner – at least the reductivism went right to the top: the pigeons learning their behaviour from the rewards and punishments administered in the ‘Skinner box’ were the models, however inadequate, for all animal mind, including the human. Hence Skinner’s foray into human politics in his books Walden Two (1948) and Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He did not believe that humans were a special case, but applied to them the lessons he believed that he’d learnt from his animals. Here, at least, was impartial science.

But as de Waal shows again and again, studies in animal cognition have habitually been quite unscientifically partisan. Humans have been taken as the standard, and the intelligence of other animals has been judged according as they clumsily approximate to it. (One of de Waal’s chapters is titled ‘The Measure of All Things’.) The whole Nim project, for instance (as recounted in this blog for 8 May 2017), was essentially anthropocentric in this way: it asked how like a human a chimpanzee could be induced to behave.

De Waal shows that the very methodology of many studies has been carelessly Wall 2 Apes in sterile environments, behind bars or wire, take tests devised and presented by a different species (humans), and the results are compared to those achieved by human children in supportive human settings: the miserable contrast is well pictured in one of de Waal’s own illustrations. Earlier in the book he has aptly quoted the physicist Werner Heisenberg: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” [7]

“What a bizarre animal we are,” de Waal exclaims, “that the only question we can ask in relation to our place in nature is Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the smartest of them all?[157] It’s a well-chosen image, because the mirror test for self-awareness is an especially plain instance of the exam-bound mentality behind much comparative psychology. At this point we need to recall that nearly every research scientist is the triumphant product of almost two decades of successful test-taking. How could a mind be unaffected by this habituation? (Jane Goodall said in a recent BBC interview that she thought herself fortunate to have delayed formal scientific study until her late twenties. She never did study for an undergraduate degree.) Accordingly a conference report in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says, “Dolphins, it turns out, are pretty darn smart. Panelist Lori Marino, an expert on cetacean neuroanatomy at Emory University in Atlanta [incidentally, the same university in which de Waal is a professor of psychology] said they may be Earth’s second smartest creature, after humans, of course.” For instance, “They can recognise themselves in a mirror (a feat most animals fail at).” Fail! One wonders how such animals get on in later life. Nature, it seems, is seated at a giant exam, where the top mark is reserved for the examiners’ own relations (for of course that question we put to the mirror on the wall is a confidently rhetorical one: we know who).

De Waal is keenly alert to all the manifestations of this attitude. He speaks, for instance, of a research project in which sheep were shown to recognise and remember the pictured faces of other sheep (touchingly, “they actually called out to these pictures as if the individuals were present”). But he balks at the sub-title given to the published report, ‘sheep are not so stupid after all’: it’s “a title to which I object, since I don’t believe in stupid animals.” [72] Later he writes of the “patience and restraint” shown by apes and others, as much in the wild as in domestication: “self-control is an age-old feature of animal societies.” [221] And yet it’s often said of humans who fail to show these qualities that they’re behaving ‘like animals’. De Waal illustrates our senseless prejudice in this respect with a story told by the zoologist Desmond Morris. In the days when London Zoo (where Morris then worked) held chimpanzee tea parties, these apes, being quite capable of using tools, became too orderly and polished in their manners to please the public: in order to conform to expectations, they had to be trained to misbehave. The point is that science, supposedly the home of positivism, has been prejudiced in the same way. Summarising this whole comparative or rather competitive tradition in cognitive science, de Waal says with characteristic decisiveness, “I cannot think of a single profound insight it has yielded.” [12]

Happily, evolutionary cognition is now a well-established and rapidly growing discipline in science, with a large body of authoritative research already to its credit. Much of the success has no doubt been due to de Waal himself. Nowadays, who would think of saying, as a popular introduction did in the 1960s, that “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour, and that is to learn more about man himself”? However, the subject still does face resistance; in particular its egalitarian premise does. I don’t mean the sort of particular challenges which all science needs in order to remain healthy, but something more like an ideological antagonism.

A recent book title (cited by de Waal) makes the point: The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals (2013). But at least here we are pictured in the same kingdom as our evolutionary fellow-products, the ‘other animals’. The more absolute case has been summarised in the ugly coinage ‘humaniqueness’, a word aimed at fixing into being this strange intellectual hybrid of science and ideology. The case was put in the 2008 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University, titled ‘The Seeds of Humanity’ and delivered by the man who coined that absurd term. The two lectures by Marc Hauser, then a professor of pscyhology and human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, are densely argued texts, but their ideological theme is clearly established in the introductory paragraphs. Here is a taste of it, starting with the first sentence of all:

Humans create plays, operas, sculptures, computers, equations, laws, religions, guns, and soufflés. This is only a partial list of our achievements. In the history of life on earth, we are the only species to have created such creations … These observations suggest the first radical proposition I will make: we are not animals … If the fact that we share some 98 per cent of our genes with chimpanzees is meaningful, then why isn’t a chimpanzee writing this essay, or singing backup for the Rolling Stones, or working on quantum computing, or adjudicating over a legal case, or making me a soufflé? … Looked at in this way, a chimpanzee is a chimpanzee is a chimpanzee – a cultural non-starter.

This is the prospectus, familiarly bumptious in its formulation, for the extreme form of what de Waal calls “an us-versus-them world”. That’s indeed the world which has been made for us in the West over the centuries, and which has been costing “them” ever more and more in pains and lives. And there’s surely still a persuasible audience for such thinking as this, even or perhaps especially among scientists, for it leaves us with nothing to apologise for or, more crucially, to change our ways for, and of course it makes us proud to be human.

De Waal’s book is a detailed critique of the ‘humaniqueness’ outlook. It is part of his own case that apes do indeed have cultures and other “creative” accomplishments, but that these are themselves prompts toward farther (not lower, but less immediately accessible) reaches of intelligence among animals more distant from humans in the evolutionary complex:

After the apes break down the dam between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, the floodgates often open to include species after species. Cognitive ripples spread from apes to monkeys to dolphins, elephants, and dogs, followed by birds, reptiles, fish, and sometimes invertebrates … an ever-expanding pool of possibilities in which the cognition of, say, the octopus may be no less astonishing than that of any given mammal or bird. [69-70]

So what are we: a lonely self-congratulating elite, scorning and battening upon the rest of nature, or fellow-swimmers in the waters of cognition? It’s a choice not just for cognitive science, but also for the moral and spiritual faculties which Hauser thinks so well of humans for having. I shall end with one tragi-comic utterance on the question Rouaultfrom those latter regions of the human mind, by the great French artist Georges Rouault: the print titled Nous nous croyons rois (‘We think ourselves kings’). It was made during the First World War. Its eloquence makes further comment superfluous.







Notes and references:

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) is published in the UK by Granta Books, and in the USA by Norton and Co. The Desmond Morris story appears on p.223, and is referenced to R. and D. Morris, Men and Apes, McGraw-Hill, 1966. Page numbers for quotations are given in the brackets.

Jane Goodall was being interviewed on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 14 May for the programme Private Passions.

The popular introduction from the 1960s is P. L. Broadhurst’s The Science of Animal Behaviour, Penguin Books, 1963: quotation from p.12. There is more about this book and its times in the post for 10 October 2016.

The conference report in Science (an excellent journal) appears in the issue for 26 February 2010.

The 2008 Tanner Lectures can be read at

Georges Rouault’s Nous nous croyons rois is number 7 in his print series entitled Miserere, first published in part in 1927, and published complete as Miserere et Guerre in 1948. Unfortunately I can’t recall where I have the image from, but I hope the source will forgive its use here.



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