Friday, December 23, 2016

Book Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal (audio)

This was an intriguing audiobook. The central thesis is that humans aren't special in pretty much any way. We're another animal, and the more we try to either denigrate other animals or build ourselves up, the more we are proven wrong, as animals as varied as chimps, crows, octopuses, and elephants prove themselves to be able to do all sorts of things once declared to be unique to humans and thus proving our superiority, from sharing to empathy to language to math to future planning to tool using.

Dr. de Waal works with chimps and bonobos but he goes to great lengths to show lots of animals, not just other hominids, are capable of these impressive feats. Personally, I loved the parts about Alex and parrot the best, because I have read a book about him, and he's quite a character. He was able to add large numbers without ever being taught. He had a lot of personality. And a lot of words. And he proved indubitably that he was very smart.

The chimps also have a lot of personality and some of the tests really brought that out. I loved the tests where a lower-level chimp could see where a food treat was hidden, and when they were allowed out to the outside area, they didn't rush right over to it, but instead nonchalantly pretended nothing interesting was going on, until everyone else was occupied, and only then did they go get the treat. And this is a great example of the types of tests/studies that should be done. Dr. de Waal is very dismissive of inappropriate testing that is later used to prove animals are stupid. If you try to compare how fish climb trees to how humans do, the fish will seem stupid. But they'll outswim a human every time. Similarly, if we test elephants' tool use by only giving them things they have to pick up with their trunk—which they're obviously capable of but don't always prefer as it impacts their breathing and their maneuverability—they don't always test well. But if instead we give them boxes they can use as a stool to reach something, they'll use that tool every time. Also often when hominids are compared to human babies or children, those humans have the advantages of A) being tested by one of their own species B) sitting on their mother's lap C) understanding the directions (for children), while the chimps have none of these advantages and yet often perform quite well. There's even one whose ability to memorize excel any human ability by far and away.

The book is well-written, accessible, and the narrator was soothing and kept my attention. It's not too technical for an audiobook, and some of the more unusual names are probably helped by having someone who knows the correct pronunciation. I was thoroughly entertained throughout and highly recommend this book for any animal lover. I also think people who think humans are far superior to animals ought to read it, but I'm sure they won't.

I checked this audiobook out of the library via Overdrive download.

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