Animals Are Smarter Than Humans Give Them Credit For

Photo: Megan Lorenz/Getty Images

Is your dog smarter than your friend’s baby? Are cats smarter than dogs? What about Inky the octopus, who recently made a daring escape from his tank in a New Zealand aquarium — is he smarter than those internet cats whose owners “trapped” them in circles made of tape?

The answer to all of these questions, according to the message of the new book by famed primatologist Frans de Waal is: Who knows? Or maybe even: Who cares? The book was released this week, and is rather straightforwardly titled Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? In it, de Waal makes the convincing argument that, for too long, scientists have judged animal intelligence using a human yardstick, devising tests from a human-centric point of view that, really, an animal shouldn’t be expected to pass. Just because an animal cannot speak or read, for example, does not automatically imply that they cannot think — and comparing animals to humans, or even one species of animal to another, is not a very useful way to go about studying intelligence.

Animals are smarter than we tend to give them credit for — it’s just that they’re smart on their terms, which often look nothing like our own. When an octopus, for instance, changes its color or shape in order to match its surroundings, that takes brainpower; when a bat navigates its environment using echolocation, that takes brainpower, too. In a very real way, these capabilities are in fact demonstrations of these animals’ versions of intelligence.

De Waal recently spoke with Science of Us about how he prefers to define the term “intelligence,” and the need for some cross-species perspective-taking when it comes to the idea of animal cognition. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation.

You write in your book about the misguided ways that researchers have tried to study animal intelligence. What’s a really egregious example to you?
There’s a lot of emphasis on language in terms of cognition, which I don’t really agree with, because I’m not sure we think in terms of language. Language is wonderful to talk about what you thought, and to communicate your thinking — but whether language is what determines thinking, I don’t think anyone has proven that. No one has proven that language is needed to think.

Preverbal children think — there’s lots of studies now on infants. And lots of animals can plan ahead and think back to specific events, and language is not needed for that. And it used to be assumed when, for example, the studies with Alex the parrot started — there were lots of things that said you need language to do this, you need language to do that. So, for example, Alex the parrot can count up things. If you show him three chips and two chips and then one chip and you cover them all up and you say, ‘How many are there?’ And he says, ‘Six!’ So he can count, but he has —strictly speaking — he has no language. So many of these intellectual capacities we relate to language, when we actually have no proof at all that language is needed.

Let’s back way up for a second what is intelligence? How do you prefer to define it?
The question is: How do you solve problems in your environment? How do you deal with them? Is it in a very complex way? Is it in a simple, kind of reflex way? If it’s complex and flexible, we usually call that intelligence.

But the way an elephant does that or the way a bat does that or an octopus is very different from what we do. Now, the elephant is a bit more similar to us because it’s a mammal. But the octopus solves problems like escaping from predators by changing color — which we really cannot do! But that takes some brainpower, also, to do. Because he needs to take in the environment, and then copy the environment in terms of color — and you even have these mimic octopuses, who can mimic the the color of certain fish swimming by. They end up the color of that fish, and they swim like that fish. Which is just incredible, and it’s very complex.

It cannot simply be instinct, because you cannot be born with a template of a fish in your body, as an octopus, I think. So they must be learning that by watching these animals. And so we don’t know how they do it, but there are these very complex cognitions going on, that have very little to do with what we appreciate very much in ourselves, that are very good solutions for these animals. We need to judge them on their terms, instead of comparing them with us.

That’s so interesting. I don’t think it even occurred to me until you said that just now but of course an octopus changing color or mimicking its surroundings is a form of “brainpower.”
It didn’t occur to you because we don’t do it at all. It has no connection to what you do in your daily life. And so we dismiss it. We say, “Well, it must be something simple or some kind of trick” — it doesn’t even fall under “intelligence” for us. That’s how human-biased we are. We measure everything by our standards. And that’s what we need to move away from.

You can also look at echolocation in bats. Can we do that? No, I don’t think we can do that. And it’s very complex, what they do — in midair, in the dark, they capture prey with echolocation. Just imagine — that takes a lot of brainpower to do that, right? And we don’t care about that, because we say that’s irrelevant — that’s a bat. So we don’t judge them on their terms, we judge them on our terms. It cannot speak, it cannot read, and that’s all that matters to us.

About the octopus specifically — the remarkable thing is that the neurons are spread out over the whole body. And so you cannot even compare it to us, who have a brain, a central nervous system — they have a brain plus all these ganglia that are sitting on their arms and are somehow connected. So it’s more like an internet-type nervous system than like a centralized nervous system like ours. And so the octopus thinks with its whole body. The arms independently can decide to grab prey and move it toward the mouth, for example — there are very complex things that they do, and it’s very hard to compare with us.

That’s always the wrong question: Are we smarter than an octopus, or are we comparable to an octopus? It’s such a strange question, really. It’s a bit like — is a rose a better plant than an oak? We don’t ask those kind of questions because these are silly questions. And I think the question of whether we are smarter than an octopus is not a very smart question, either.

So then, what are some other examples of animals demonstrating brainpower that we might not automatically recognize as “intelligence”?
I mention the jumping spider in my book. The jumping spider goes to a web of another spider, and taps the web, and gets the spider to come closer — the other spider thinks there’s a prey in the web, like a fly or something. And then the jumping spider — well, it jumps on the other spider, the one that has made that web, and eats it.

So the jumping spider is able to mimic the movements of certain kinds of typical prey, like flies, and they apparently learn that. There’s evidence that by doing this very often, they learn which kind of tricks to use on the web, or which kind of stimulation to use to get the other spider to come over so that they can eat it. It’s much more complex than people would assume — it’s intelligence. It’s not like they stumble into a web and they take the spider. No, they are working on this. They are working many times on this before they get it right.

So it sounds like the definition of intelligence is whether the animal demonstrates the ability to learn.
It’s the ability to learn, and it’s the question of whether it’s a flexible use of that knowledge. If you always do the same thing under the same circumstances, we usually don’t call that intelligence. That’s more like routine behavior. But if you have flexible solutions to flexible problems, that’s intelligence.

The most famous case was the chimpanzees that Wolfgang Köhler studied — he hung a banana way up high, and gave them a bunch of sticks and a bunch of boxes to see what they would do. And so that’s basically a test of — how flexible is this chimpanzee? This chimpanzee knows what boxes are; he knows what sticks are. But can he apply that knowledge to a new situation that he hasn’t seen before?

And Köhler, when he said that these animals acted on insight — that they could see the solution in their heads, so to speak — oh, he was hated so much. This was about a century ago, and the behaviorists hated that kind of thing — because it implied that animals think. And they were not ready for that. But nowadays Köhler is seen more like a hero.

So what has changed, then? Why are more scientists willing to take this more inclusive view of animal intelligence?
I think the change was made by example after example — a bit like Kohler’s test. Köhler showed a behavior that was hard to explain on the basis of simple learning — because these chimps, they were never rewarded for the solution, which means they found the solution before they got any reinforcements for it. And reinforcements are, of course, what the behaviorists like to believe is shaping animal behavior.

I’m going to interrupt and ask you to define “simple learning.” Simple learning is associative learning, where you associate a positive outcome which is rewarding with a certain behavior. So imagine that Köhler had trained his chimpanzees to stand on boxes — to stack a few boxes together and stand on top of them, and then give them a reward. So, basically the way you train animals in a circus. If he had done that, no one would have been impressed if a chimp stacks a few boxes together to get a banana. Everyone would say, well, that’s basic learning — he has been rewarded for that. The big innovation of Köhler was not to reward them for anything, and just see what they will do spontaneously.

And we have now seen so many of these examples after Köhler. For example, we have these tests on theory of mind in jays — where a jay will re-hide his food if he has been watched by another jay. No one has been training these jays to do this — no one has told these jays to do this. But if they have been watched, then on an occasion when they are alone, they are going to re-hide that food, as if they have an understanding that being watched by somebody else is really not a good thing under these circumstances.

And in so many of these examples and so many of these tests, the scientists tried to exclude the idea of intelligence — and they do that by giving the test only once. So the critical test is given to the animals only once or twice, so that they have no chance to learn any solution — they have to come up with it right then, right on the spot. And this has been done so many times and in so many circumstances and in so many species that the argument of simple learning is now dead, I think. It doesn’t mean that simple learning doesn’t occur — it occurs all the time. But animals can certainly also demonstrate other capacities.

So it’s like there’s a need for more cross-species empathy, and what I mean by that is the idea that we humans need to find a way to access the perspectives of the animals we want to study, and then devise intelligence tests accordingly.
Exactly. The human obsession of the last century has been, “How do they compare to us? It has always been on our terms — and we pick things that we are good at, like technology or language. And if they can’t do it to our satisfaction, then we are very happy and we say, “Well, humans are obviously the only species that has that capacity.” It’s a very strange type of contest, asking, “Who’s the smartest species?” And I don’t think it helps us understand intelligence or cognition at all, in any species.

Animals Are Smarter Than Humans Think