Us and Them – faults in our understanding of animals.

I have been reading a book by primatologist Frans de Waal called “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?”. The book is an amazing display of the faults in our understanding of animal behaviour and cognition. We often group animals in one category and separate animals from humans. Us vs Them. However, there is less of a gap between primates and humans than between primates and beetles. We put our own species onto a pedestal but more experiments have been done to show that a vast array of non-humans animals share characteristics with us. Many have characteristics that humans don’t possess. 

De Waal says “it would be a true miracle if we had the fancy cognition that we believe we have while our fellow animals had none of it” (p.43). I will outline the main things I have learnt from the book so far (the book is full of interesting case studies of animals that I can’t possibly do justice – go and read the book yourself!). 

  • It is difficult to compare different skills/behaviours

Each species has different adaptations and behavioural adaptations that make it particularly suited to that habitat. Humans may have an upper-hand in some areas but in others we would be disadvantaged. For example, bats possess echo-location. Echo- location is essentially a bat’s navigation and communication system. They produce sound waves that bounce off of objects in their environment so they can detect what is in their surroundings. This is allows the bats to figure out where an object is and how big it is. It isn’t just bats that use this, whales, dolphins and other birds use it to find food. This is entirely different to human navigation because we can’t even detect the sound waves the bats produce due to its high frequency.

Photo Credit: Ask A Biologist. Here there is a visual representation of echolocation. You can see the way it works by bouncing sound waves back to the animal. 

Frans de Waal believes that we need to start ranking cognition depending on adaptations rather than on a strict human framework. Like the saying “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

  • “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” (p.13)

This challenges the scientific process that jumps to conclusions after an experiment. If an animal does not respond to a certain stimulus, that does not mean there is a lack of intelligence. There needs to be continuous revision of experiments because scientists may conclude differently. That is why there is a major concern about animal testing. Although scientists try to experiment only on invertebrates or mice that have a “lower” intelligence, this may be proved wrong in the future. There are many reasons for the inaccuracy of experiments which leads us onto the next faults. 

  • Testing is done in captivity and in cages. 

There can be poor treatment of animals, however, this is not accepted anymore due to the 3R’s (Reduce, Refine and Replace) which aim to improve the living conditions of animals during experiments. However, the animals are still living in cages and aren’t in their natural habitat. This effects their cognition and response. The animals are less likely to co-operate and perform tasks if they are treated badly. Therefore, there will probably be an absence of evidence. However, many scientists will raise these animals from when they were born which means they form a better attachment to them and become more comfortable to co-operate.

  • Comparing human toddlers and animals 

Primates have a very close cognition to human toddlers. Many case studies in the book show that the primates had a greater response and were able to work out problems faster than toddlers. However, there is often an unfair experiment due to the conditions between toddlers and primates. Primates are in cages, whereas, toddlers are usually sitting on their parents laps. They are comfortable and encouraged by their parents to answer the questions. Furthermore, the toddlers are tested by their own species (humans) but primates are tested by strangers in white coats. They would respond better to animals of their own species because they recognise them.

Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal. You can compare the conditions between the two experiments done between animals and toddlers.
  • Scientists testing have a fixed mindset

A lot of scientists believe that animal are less intelligent leaving less room for investigation. They won’t understand the animals or their behaviours so will not be equipped to assess it. This leads to subjective conclusions. 

  • Tests could show animals ‘lowest’ cognition

The experiments could underestimate the intelligence of animals. It is extremely difficult to do an accurate investigation. Again revision of experiments is needed to ensure we don’t miss key elements of animal intelligence. We can’t assess the whole of humanity based on one human or a group of humans.

As you can see there a range of problems that arise from our understanding of animals and there is a long way to go before we truly understand animals. Hence, it is controversial to rank species in terms of intelligence or at least to separate them from humans as much as we do. Again, I would recommend reading Franz de Waal’s book as it is easy to read yet scientific. A perfect book for popular science.

Photo Credit: The Financial Times. Frans de Waal at Burgers’ Zoo (where he began his primate studies in 1979)

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