Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

May 3, 2016

Through observation and carefully controlled study, human understanding of the behavior and intelligence of other creatures has grown exponentially over the last 40 years. Yet, there’s still so much unknown.

In his new book, aptly titled, primatologist Frans de Waal addresses the provocative question, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Charity Nebbe talks with De Waal about the extent of human understanding and how animal intelligence is studied during this Talk of Iowa interview. 

Much of his work deals with interpreting animal behavior, which often involves determining how similar an animal’s behavior is to that of a human behavior or emotion.

“With animals that are close to us,” De Waal says, “I feel that if they react very similarly to similar circumstances, we need to assume that the psychology behind it is very similar too.”

He provides the example of chimpanzees who, after a fight, kiss and embrace each other. He's received objections to calling the behavior “reconciliation.” 

“People would say, ‘Well you don’t know if it’s the same as human reconciliation; why don’t you call it post-conflict contact?’” says De Waal. “People are always pushing for this sort of neutral terminology, and I feel in the case of animals as close to us as chimps and bonobos, which are 98.5 percent identical to us in terms of their DNA… you need to assume similar psychological processes, and we should not be so afraid of anthropomorphic terminology.” 

Nebbe also talks with primatologist Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University. She’s spent the last 15 years studying the behavior of Savanna chimpanzees in Senegal, and she has seen some remarkable behavior.