“Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” by Frans de Waal

“Are we open-minded enough to assume that other species have a mental life? Are we creative enough to investigate it? Can we tease apart the roles of attention, motivation, and cognition? Those three are involved in everything animals do; hence poor performance can be explained by any one of them.”

*****Post-Meeting Results*****

On January 16, 2019, the book club met to discuss and evaluate “Are we Human Enough . . . .” The mean results, on a five point scale, are as follows:

Readability: 4.25
Content: 4.05
Overall: 4.0

Comments include:

“It was ok. I was hoping there would be more information on other types of animals.”

“Very much liked this book and the author.”

“Loved everything about this book!”

“Very interesting and informative!”

Effie, a western lowland gorilla in London in 2010, shortly after the death of a companion.
Your next boss?

Scopes points out that this image is misleading in that the elephant technically paints but does not create:https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/elephant-painting/

A Silverback admires himself

Can’t leave out the corvids, their tool-making and utilization skills are examples of convergent evolution

In “Are we Smart Enough,” author Frans de Waal, a primate expert by training, explains how prejudice and misconceptions hampered the study of animal cognition. Now those prejudices are being swept away as experiments reveal “animals” are proficient in many areas previously thought to be within the exclusive domain of homo sapiens.

Discussion Questions:

1). One of author Frans de Wall’s conclusions is that, while humans are animals, he will use the shorthand “animal” to describe non-human species. Do you accept the fact that you are a homonoid and quite closely related to chimpanzees?

2). What separates your mind from an animal’s? Maybe you think it’s your ability to design tools, your sense of self, or your grasp of past and future―all traits that have helped us define ourselves as the planet’s preeminent species. But in recent decades, these claims have eroded, or even been disproven outright, by a revolution in the study of animal cognition.

In your opinion, what is left? What cognitive traits, if any, do humans have that make us unique?

A Coconut Octopus uses tools to snatch a crab

3). Aristotle’s Scala Naturae (“Ladder of Being,” also “Great Chain of Being”) depicts intelligence as a hierarchical tree-like structure with God and angels at the zenith and man right beneath. We now know that cognition is not linearly hierarchical but more diffuse, like a bush. Can you think of examples where non-human abilities surpass those of homo sapiens?

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana

An elelphant stacking blocks

4). One of Frans de Waal conclusions is that: “Instead of making humanity the measure of all things, we need to evaluate other species by what they are. In doing so, I am sure we will discover many magic wells, including some as yet beyond our imagination.” (p.275.) Do you agree? Is there a tendency for homo sapiens to “anthropomorphize” animal behavior?

For an interesting discussion about whether we unduly credit animals with human emotions see:


5). For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, other species were assumed to be inferior in most ways to human beings, and the world’s creatures were assembled on a ladder with humans at the top, primates on the rung below and all other species delineated on rungs below that.  Behaviorists, for example, believed that on the output of the creature mattered, not the internal mental processes.

Why do you think science was blind for so long to the amazing abilities of animals?

6). Finally, was the book worth reading? What was the most amazing animal feat related by the book?

Carel Fabritius’s painting The Goldfinch

About the Author:

Frans de Waal has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. The author of “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,” among many other works.

He is the C. H. Candler Professor in Emory University’s Psychology Department and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.


Video of animals doing amazing things (mainly escaping)

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