Your Book Review: Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?

Finalist #4 of the book review contest

[This is the fourth of many finalists in the book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about two of these a week for several months. When you’ve read all of them, I’ll ask you to vote for your favorite, so remember which ones you liked. - SA]

Book Review - Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are is ostensibly a book about a subfield of ethology - animal cognition. It turns out to actually be about a lot more things than that, as "animal cognition" and the history of its study touches on a lot of different scientific fields and the various approaches, methodologies, and ideologies they've had in the past. Before we jump into talking about how the book is useful and why we might care about it in other fields, I want to say right up front that Are We Smart Enough is first and foremost a book about the joy of discovering surprising and interesting things in the natural world, and it reminded me of poring over Zoobooks and the like when I was a kid. Are you looking for a well-written and enjoyable popular science book that will consistently have you going "wow, that's really cool!"? If so, you don't really need the rest of this review, but there's a lot of good stuff in there to unpack.

I. What's In the Book

Are We Smart Enough gives an overview of the study of animal cognition, its history, past and current controversies, and where the field might go next (as of 2016). "Animal Cognition" is a relatively new subfield that borrows much from psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology, but it is firmly rooted in its parent field of ethology. So, just what is ethology? It is the study animal behavior. Ethologists these days are certainly knowledgeable about evolutionary lineages, cladistics, and animal anatomy, but the heart of the field has always been observing animals interacting with their environments (whether a wild or experimental environment). As we'll see, it's a field with a history at least as tumultuous as psychology, with an early amateurish "wild west", a strict over-correction, and these days a hopefully more productive synthesis.

The first chapter introduces the subfield of "animal cognition" and many of the stumbling blocks it has run into as a field, many of which are due to humans being unwilling to consider that "cognition" is a thing that animals do. The second gives an overview of the history of ethology, and highlights especially the trends in the field that led to "animal cognition" not being taken seriously as a subject of study until more recently. Chapters three through eight each explore concepts that have at one time or another been thought to be exclusively human or at least exceptional in humans and shows that animals are doing them to some degree as well. The final chapter gives a very brief overview of the current state of the field and where it might go.

As the title suggests, even though the book is stuffed with story after story of animal intelligence, it is at least as much about how humans have tried (and often failed) to come to grips with what animals are really up to. Here's De Waal in his own words:

In all this, we love to compare and contrast animal and human intelligence, taking ourselves as the touchstone. It is good to realize, though, that this is an outdated way of putting it. The comparison is not between humans and animals but between one animal species - ours - and a vast array of others. Even though most of the time I will adopt the 'animal' shorthand for the latter, it is undeniable that humans are animals. We're not comparing two separate categories of intelligence, therefore, but rather are considering variation within a single one. I look at human cognition as a variety of animal cognition.

In the past, some humans have certainly been overly ready to attribute human thoughts, feelings, and experiences to animals (okay, not just the past - I certainly anthropomorphize my cats much more than I should), but for much of the twentieth century, many biologists went too far and would deny any human-like characteristics to animals, reaching an extreme by importing Skinnerian "black box" thinking that denied any speculation about the mental or emotional life of animals. De Waal argues that both anthropomorphization and "anthropodenial" (the rejection of any shared mental or emotional traits between humans and animals) have led to missed opportunities for observation, experiment and study. The twin pillars of modern animal cognition study are both evolutionary: fundamental continuity and adaptation to niches. In other words, much of what underlies various kinds of cognition is retained from common ancestors, but each animal species has specialized cognition to help them survive in their particular circumstances. As the early experimentalist Karl von Frisch poetically put it, each animal species seems to have a "magic well" - an area of specialized behavior that keeps giving new insights the longer you look. The "magic well" gives the antidote to human exceptionalism in animal cognition: lots of animals are "exceptional" in particular flavors of cognition - including humans, whose magic well is speech and symbolic thought. Given this, De Waal proposes a reasonable heuristic for how comfortable we should be inferring human-like thoughts or feelings: the closer an animal species is related to humans, the more reasonable it is that they might think and feel like we do, and the further the relation, the less reasonable. Crazy idea, right?

One area where De Waal is especially skeptical about both claims of human-like ability as well as how much those claims matter is the evidence around "language use" among other animals. He doesn't claim that there isn't evidence for other animals doing very well with bits and pieces of language - African Gray Parrots really do seem to learn the names for lots of objects, captive Chimpanzees who participate in a lot of experiments learn to understand spoken instructions rather well, and some chimps and gorillas have certainly learned some amount of sign language. Instead, De Waal's skepticism comes from his belief that a) the cluster of cognitive skills we call "language" isn't central to cognition generally, and b) it's ridiculous to assume that animals that didn't evolve this ability on their own would be able to do much with it (if anything, it's remarkable how much they can do). Very interesting for his interpretation here is that De Waal says that he is apparently one of those people who don't primarily think with an inner monologue, a category I had no idea existed until a year ago. Pause for a moment and notice that until fairly recently, and in some corners still today, we have had very smart people reasoning about thought as fundamentally being linguistic and nature, while some large chunk, maybe as many as ~15% of people just don't think in words. Now think about trying to understand what's going on for animals that can't even self-report what their inner life is like and how much harder that must be.

De Waal closes by acknowledging that the field has come around and these days, with animal cognition a respected field and the assumption of evolutionary continuity it rests on widely accepted. Even human psychology is coming around to seeing the benefits of animal studies that don't treat the animals purely as stimulus-response robots, especially those animals closest to us. Predictably, the fields that have longest held onto the very old human/animal dichotomy, with the accompanying belief that "evolution stops at the neck", are those concerned with humans and the furthest away from biology: the humanities (which pains me, as a former Classics major). Even folks you would not expect show occasional flashes of emotionally-motivated human exceptionalism, like the primate research team that learned a chimpanzee in Japan performed significantly better than humans on a specific memory-related task and responded by training to beat the chimp as hard as they could. Despite this, the field marches on. Many former bastions of evidence for human exceptionalism have not fared well: animals have been shown to remember things from the past, take action in the present to prepare for anticipated conditions, hold off on strong biological urges like hunger and lust until the time is right, and even perhaps metacognition, with clever experiments showing animals opting out of problems they recognize as harder to solve than the easier ones.

One area where he sides with the skeptics is in asking for an end to inter-species intelligence contests and trying to grapple with big, messy topics like "self-awareness" or "consciousness". He points out that we don't even have good definitions for these concepts in humans, so why should we expect to apply them to other animals? Whatever "consciousness" might be, evidence of various things that have been associated with it have been shown in animals. At least among vertebrates, we have remarkably similar anatomical substrates, so, there is likely no bright line between "conscious" and "not conscious". And even if we could distinguish varying levels of consciousness, attempting to think of all cognition as one thing that proceeds on a scale from dumb to smart hides the truly interesting opportunities for experiment and observation that are available if we instead look at cognition as an adaptation made up of many components and specialized to the selective pressures that have shaped it in each species.

You know, like every other evolved complex physical system.

II. The Main Takeaway: Evolution Is Stingy, Cognition is No Exception

Besides the delightful stories about animals surprising researchers with how clever they can be (they really are a lot of fun), I found the biggest takeaway to be that cognition is not in a special class, and it shows the same evidence of conservation and continuity that you find everywhere else in evolved beings. Just as all vertebrate skeletons show a clear family resemblance, so too do vertebrate brains and nervous systems. The same underlying efficiency of evolution explains both the continuity and the variation of cognition across vertebrates: if something works, it will be kept around, twisted, changed, and put to new uses (to paraphrase Gibson, "the [environment] finds its own uses for things"). On the other hand, anything that is not helping a species' fitness will find itself on the wrong side of Darwin's balance sheet. This means that you can expect to see great variation in what kinds of cognitive abilities between species, but when you find species with common capacities and common ancestry, they're likely using the same neural lego blocks to do it (and if they're far enough apart, they probably convergently evolved based on similar selective pressures).

III. Other Takeaways: How to Do Science, Continuity, Comparison, and Predictive Processing

Besides the core insight about the evolved nature of cognition and lots of examples of what that looks like, I also had a few other takeaways about how to do science, the difficulties of sharing discoveries across disciplines, the continuity of neural anatomy, what we can learn from less closely-related brains, and what implications it might have for predictive processing theory.

Lessons About Doing Science

1. Progression of Ethology

· Ethology began as fairly amateurish nature-lovers going out and watching animals and assuming they basically worked like small furry/feathered humans. Obviously, this wasn't ideal, and as the other sciences started getting their acts together in the 19th and early 20th century, ethologists wanted to jump on the rigor train. A lot of this was useful, but it reached a fever pitch in the mid 20th century when ethology broke into two camps: behaviorists and instinctualists. Behaviorists believed that everything an animal did was traceable to some learning in its lifetime from reinforcement, and the instinctualists believed that everything an animal did was inborn instinct linked closely to its anatomy. Both camps developed some useful insights and methods - behaviorists were pretty darn good at carefully specifying an experimental design, and the instinctualists highlighted some important linkages between behavior and anatomy and the evolutionary forces that shaped them. Neither school had any room for the animals taking in information and doing something with it (cognition), and both were so afraid of the baggage from the early field when basically the other scientists laughed at them and wouldn't let them sit at the cool scientists table that they completely refused to accept even obvious observations of animals having mental or emotional states. Luckily, the kind of people who want to spend their entire lives paying very close attention to animals tend to, you know, kinda like animals and actually notice what they're like, so this rigid dogmatism started to thaw a bit in the 70s and 80s. By the 2000s, the field had begun to reach a new balance with strengths taken from the previous currents in the field: the careful observation and intuition built on thousands of hours of attention to generate hypotheses, rigorously designed experiments to test them, and a solid evolutionary understanding of the animal, its anatomy, and its interplay with its environment.

· We see this kind of progression in other scientific fields, but ethology makes for an nice case study for outsiders. In most scientific fields, you need a certain amount of expertise to even know what the debate is about, much less to follow along knowledgeably. But all of us have experience looking at and being around animals, and there have been some amazing nature documentaries, so the barrier to understanding what's going on in the field is pretty low. We can follow along with De Waal's story and see how it got overly dogmatic and obsessed with its theories and constructs. It's hard to apply this insight to other fields that do require more subject matter expertise (especially without over-applying it and being skeptical of the state of a field that you don't know much about), but it's a helpful reminder that scientific fields are subject to fads, dogmas, and strong personalities.

1. The Importance of Methodology and Practical Matters

· Ethology also has some really interesting lessons about how important various practical matters and methodology can be when it comes to what your field can (and can't) produce. For example, it turns out that a surprising amount of useful data about animal cognition comes from experiments with dogs. Is it because dog brains have some interesting physical structures? No, not really that different from a comparably sized mammal. Is it because they are social animals and so have a lot of the same cognitive lego blocks as we do? Maybe a little. The main reason is because they will sit still for an fMRI to be the goodest boy (and to get hot dogs). Turns out sitting still for several minutes in a giant, whirring machine isn't something most animals (including chimps) are that into. So we use dogs.

· On the other side of that coin, elephants are clearly very smart, but we've done surprisingly little controlled experiments or close observation with them. Why? At this point, I bet you can guess: because they are huge. They're damn inconvenient to keep in the basement of the biology building, they mess up the trees on alumni drive, and undergrads kept complaining about elephant-patty injuries while playing ultimate on the quad. More seriously, it takes a big, expensive facility to keep captive elephants, and there aren't that many wild habitats. We are missing out on a lot of potentially valuable insights because they are really inconvenient. I don't say this as a moral judgment, but to point out that the same thing might be true elsewhere, and we'd do well to keep an eye out.

· Which is super interesting for thinking about experimental design. On the one hand, it shows that you can find some clever "hacks" to find useful data that is otherwise hidden - in a world where fMRIs have only been done on humans, being able to do one on any other animal is a huge win. Lucky for us we've spent the last 30,000 years or so prepping a suitable experimental subject. On the other hand, did somebody say "sampling bias"? How much of what we learn about dog brains will turn out not to generalize like we'd hope? Let's just set aside that dogs have been selected based on ability to empathize with, listen to, and otherwise get along with humans for ~30,000 years, which might result in their cognition being more like ours than other mammals. Even without that, what if we find similarities between humans and dogs that are coincidental and blithely assume they must be common to all mammals? There's a chance we're suffering from the "drunk under the lamppost" effect. Hopefully as we get more and better technology for understanding what's going on in brains (I'm looking at you, Neuralink), we'll find ways to point it at other animals and find out.

· As mentioned in the changes to the field of ethology above, De Waal also gives a helpfully nuanced discussion of the role of observation and anecdote in the scientific process - no, you shouldn't treat it as conclusive data, but yes it can certainly suggest areas for further study, especially when the intuitions are built up by thousands of hours of careful observation. Put that observation together with a thorough understanding of relevant theory (like evolution), and when a professional scientist says, to quote Asimov, "That's funny", we likely have a good candidate to design a robust experiment for. Ethology also demonstrates the importance of interrelating different methods of gathering data. Fieldwork (watching animals in the wild), observation of captive animals in nice conditions, and controlled experiments all give different information that must be compared, contrasted, and assembled to get a complete picture.

· Research into animal cognition has also shown us how very important precise methodology is, and I think that the social sciences could stand to learn a few things. Paradoxically, a lot of the attempts to do what De Waal decries as misguided (measure comparative intelligence between species, establish a universal "theory of mind" and so forth) have given us some of the greatest insights. For example, Capuchin monkeys being tested on a facial recognition test did markedly worse on one day of the week, consistently. After some investigation, it was revealed to be because the researcher who worked that day was fidgety and made them nervous. Removing her got rid of the anomaly. Mice get so stressed out by the smell of male humans that their responses on cognitive tests are affected if a t-shirt worn by a man is left in the room. Doesn't happen with female researchers. Now think about all of the mouse behavioral experiments done for the past several decades and ponder how many had an all female team.

· My favorite in this category is the "Reverse Clever Hans" effect. You have probably heard of Clever Hans, the horse that could "count", who it turned out was just very good at spotting unconscious cues from his owner. It's a classic in psychology on the importance of careful experimental design. Well, a lot of human child/chimp comparison studies have run into the opposite problem. Human children, usually around the ages of 2-4, and chimps of various ages are asked to complete a variety of tasks and graded on how they do compared to each other. Chimps do pretty well on tool use comparisons, but human children blow away the chimps on tests of social skills. What's going on? With the tools, the experimenter basically just shows the tools to the humans/chimps and lets them mess around. But the social skills being tested are how well the subjects follow the experimenter's cues or learn from others. Is this because humans are so much better at social skills than apes? Or might it be because they are following the cues of someone from the same damn species and that the researchers are usually neutral, not well known, and do not engage in any friendly behavior with the chimps, but likely smile and encourage the human children? Where Clever Hans was given an unfair advantage by reading too much from a human, in a "Reverse Clever Hans" situation, humans compared with animals get all the benefits from reading the human and the animals do worse because they are relying on a human.

Lack of Talking Across Disciplines

One of the recurring themes in this book is the history of different fields of inquiry not learning from each other. There are plenty of defensible reasons for lack of communication between fields: specialization is necessary, learning new fields is hard, the amount of knowledge keeps growing exponentially, and so forth. But a lot of the examples given in this book were due to dumb reasons like refusing to acknowledge that a chimpanzee might have more useful information on human behavior than pigeons or maintaining a mind/body duality when you otherwise believe in evolution. And as with any human endeavor, there were plenty of cases of personalities not getting along for petty reasons, turf-guarding, and plain old tribalism ("my chimps are smarter than your crows"). I don't know if there's a systematic way to improve interdisciplinary communication, but given how heavily the current academic system incentivizes narrow specialization and carving out fiefs, there's got to be better ways to get fields to learn from each other. One of the more inspiring stories in Are We Smart Enough was that the rift in ethology between hardcore Skinnerian behaviorists and "it's all inborn" instinctualists was largely healed because leading scientists in each camp personally respected each other and realized they had a lot to learn from each other. The modern synthesis of using observation and intuition to come up with ideas for experiments and rigorously defined and executed experiments to test those ideas is largely because some folks cared enough about the truth to be grown ups and do it right. We don't get to see enough of that.

Lots of Continuity (Especially Among Mammal Brains)

Thanks in part to the fMRI studies of dogs mentioned above, we know that not only is a lot of brain anatomy common among mammals, it looks like it's turning on for roughly the same stuff. This means that a lot of what we learn about animal cognition and a lot of what we learn about human cognition can usefully be applied across species (with appropriate experiments to verify, of course). What I find most exciting about this is the fact that it opens up a much wider pool of data for our understanding of not only humans, but also all mammals (and to a lesser degree, all other vertebrates). Findings that might once have been relegated to an obscure animal behavior lab might be tremendously relevant to humans, but nobody bothered to look. As these boundaries get more permeable, we might learn some great stuff.

Except Where There Isn't (Birds, Cephalopods)

Birds and cephalopods are especially interesting for understanding cognition and intelligence precisely because they are smart with different hardware. Bird brains still make use of the familiar vertebrate architecture, but the optimization pressures of flight have caused them to have much lighter brains with more neurons per volume. So crows and parrots can be spooky smart despite having brain to body mass ratios that don't look so hot on first blush. Cephalopods are even weirder and harder to understand. They have a lot of their nervous system spread throughout their body, including a separate ganglion for each sucker, so they might have a very different method of cognition. This difference is what makes them simultaneously potentially very valuable for exploring the full scope of cognition in the natural world, but also makes it hard to even come up with good experiments to figure out what's going on inside their rubbery, color-changing non-skulls.

Link to Predictive Processing

Okay, so the book doesn't actually talk about predictive processing as such, but since it was about cognition, I couldn't help but think about it. Full disclosure, almosteverything I know about Predictive Processing I learned on Slate Star Codex, so take this with a grain of salt. Given that predictive processing purports to describe what is happening at a really low level, if correct, it almost certainly is how other vertebrate cognition works. This might open up new avenues for experiment and observation that aren't open with humans (no, this isn't a call for vivisection or anything, just building on what has been described above about animals having widely varying cognition that can be tested in different ways). Perhaps even more interesting would be to try to figure out if predictive processing explains the cognition of non-vertebrates like octopodes. I don't really have much further insight on this, but this sounds like yet another place where the fields of (human) psychology/neuroscience and animal cognition could usefully inform each other.

IV. A Reminder of the Joy of Learning

This book has plenty of practical things to teach, but one of my favorite things about it was the number of times I was like "wow, I didn't know that! That's so cool!" It's so easy for me to try to instrumentalize everything I learn - where will you use this? what can you do with it? So, it's nice to be reminded that some things are enjoyable to learn in and of themselves. De Waal helps this feeling along by weaving in a lot of specific stories of field experience (his own and others'). Much of the book is simply descriptions of remarkable experiments showing animals doing things that seem astonishing if you don't know them. These are delightful and worth the price of admission alone, but there's too many to cover in this review. Here are a few highlights that especially struck me:

· Elephants can recognize different human languages and even the age and gender of humans - some Elephants know that young Maasai men sometimes stab them, so they flee from young male voices speaking Maasai, while ignoring women and children speaking Maasai, or young men speaking other languages

· Octopuses have good vision, but apparently don't much use it for hunting - they will ignore a tasty crayfish in a jar until the jar is smeared with fish juice, making it smell like food, at which point they will promptly open the jar and eat the crayfish

· Capuchin monkeys seem to learn more from trial and error, whereas apes seem to show cause and effect thinking and when presented with the same challenge get it on the first try

V. Appendix: Pairs Well With (Or: Four Book Reviews for the Price of One!)

These are some other books and ideas that I've read that pick up on some of the threads above, so if you read and enjoy Are We Smart Enough, or if it sounds appealing but animals just aren't your thing, consider some of the below.

Hidden Life of Trees

Read to: appreciate another huge swath of the natural world for its beauty and complexity.

I was always pretty bored by plants - they don't move, they don't have the Four Fs (Fight, Flight, Feed, and, er, Mate), what could possibly be interesting about them? Well, trees and forests turn out to be amazing interdependent complex systems, so this book not only taught me what there was to love about plants, it also scratched a similar "joy of pure learning" itch to Are We Smart Enough. There's less that's directly applicable to humans, though some of its insights on complex systems might come in handy. Wohlleben maybe gets a bit poetic and reads too much into tree "cognition" at places, but I won't hold it too much against him, because he does a great job of re-awakening the awe and wonder many of us have felt for big, beautiful forests.

War in Human Civilization

Read for: a wonderful case study of what a rigorous, multi-disciplinary look at a complex and important phenomenon looks like.

This might be my favorite example of a book that takes a huge, sprawling topic that requires insights from multiple academic fields and puts it together rigorously. History, archaeology, evolutionary psychology, primatology, climatology, hell, even metallurgy. This book amounts to a comprehensive survey on what we know about human violence since we've been humans (and maybe a little before) through to the modern day. And given the species that we are, a comprehensive treatment of war pretty much amounts to a treatment of all of human history. This is why when I'm feeling snarky, I sometimes call it Sapiens for grownups (not totally fair - Sapiens is also a great example of weaving together findings from many disciplines, but after all the rave reviews, I expected something more earth shattering. Then I realized everyone I had heard from who was blown away by it was a STEM type that probably hasn't spent much time with history, evolutionary psych, and so forth). You will especially enjoy War in Human Civilization if you found the discussions in Are We Smart Enough about chimp politics and strategy interesting.

Honorable mention: The Horse, Wheel, and Language, which weaves together linguistics, archaeology, history, poetics, and genetics (a teeny bit - but it was published right before a lot of this data became available) to give the most comprehensive view possible of the development and early spread of Proto-Indoeuropean and its immediate daughter languages. War won out as my recommendation for having both a wider scope and I thought a more deft weaving of multiple fields. HWL reads very much as the writing of a professional archaeologist who has dipped into other fields to better understand his work. There's a lot of detail about pot sherds and midden heaps and such, which can drag, even if you're interested in that kind of thing.

Cat Sense and Dog Sense

Read to: better understand and relate to your pet with a side helping of pure joy of learning. Each of these books gives an overview of what we know about the domestication process of each animal, which also serves as a mini-primer on what domestication is and how it works. Spoiler alert: cats are barely domesticated and have had way less intentional selective pressure placed on them by humans than dogs. Did you know friendly domesticated cats might be the product of the TEMPLE-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX/CAPITALISM? Egypt's veneration of cats led to lots of folks wanting to have/gift cat mummies as spiritual protectors in graves, which led to kitty mills where cats were bred to turn into mummies (I know, sad). Any cats that didn't get along so well with the temple workers would either escape or not be allowed to breed (nobody wants to get the crap scratched out of them every time they bring the food), all of which would combine into selective pressure enforced over short (and therefore plentiful) generations for cats that get along with people.

Besides the history and evolution of the animals, these books also give a lot of hands-on behavioral tips that can help you get along better with your furry friends. In the same vein as Are We Smart Enough, these books also help you to see your pets as worthwhile and interesting in and of themselves, something complex that rewards careful attention with knowledge. Potentially scary fact: we might be putting dysgenic pressure on pets (moreso cats than dogs) by spaying and neutering all of friendly ones and only letting those breed that are so terrified of humans that nobody can find them to neuter them. So, if you find an especially friendly cat or dog, consider letting them have one litter, find good homes for the kittens/puppies and then neutering them for all the reasons everyone already asks you to do so (cats especially are extremely prolific breeders if left to their own devices).

I have the undergraduate text on cat ethology written by the same author but haven't read it yet - from what I got out of Cat Sense, if you're willing to read something more technical, you might skip right ahead to that, but I can't yet recommend that personally.