Monday, February 13, 2023

Review: Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal

Human chauvinism drives a never-ending search to identify What Makes Us Different From Animals. Frans De Waal takes us through the history of the field of animal cognition and shows how each hypothesis (empathy, speech, forward planning, use of tools, etc) has been experimentally falsified, requiring changes to our understanding of cognition. Louis Leakey perhaps put it best, describing the failure of the tool hypothesis to distinguish man and beast:
I feel that scientists holding to this definition are faced with three choices: They must accept chimpanzees are man, they must redefine man, or they must redefine tools.

In some ways, this history reminded me a little of the search to identify the fundamental differences between human races. White scientists and philosophers posited explanations like climate or skull shape to explain why their race was cognitively superior, turning from explanation to explanation as their former hypotheses proved inadequate. 

Of course, while there are no cognitive differences between races, there are cognitive differences between bats and humans and octopuses. As De Waal points out, we have to study the way animals use their cognitive abilities to solve the types of problems they encounter in their typical habitats, and stop thinking of cognition as something that can be mapped along a single axis, or that all types of learning follow similar mechanisms. Instead, a better question to ask is, what are the cognitive strengths of an animal, and how does it relate to their survival? 

I liked the example of the kittiwake birds. This species of gull nests in remote, difficult to reach locations. Because of these locations, their nests are rarely under attack nor otherwise visited by other birds. In experiments, kittiwake birds were found to not be able to distinguish between their own young, and chicks from other nests. This absence of individual recognition makes sense given the challenges kittiwakes face in their habitats: fledglings stay in their original nests, so why would a kittiwake need to tell the difference between strange chicks and their own? Similarly, humans largely operate in locations with light, are visual creatures, and thus have no need for echolocation.

I also liked the example of the rats that learned to avoid a substance from a single incident of induced vomiting, when the vomiting occurred long after the substance was eaten seemingly in defiance of the theory that stimulus/reward cycles needed to be closely associated in time to result in learning. This, too, makes sense in the evolutionary context: while physical manipulation of ones environment (either a lever, or some more naturally occurring obstruction) to obtain food typically occurs with minimal delay, indigestion has a lag.

As a former experimental biologist, I also appreciated the emphasis on study design. The field's (mis-) selection of controls, metrics, and other experimental conditions have often produced inaccurate pictures of animal cognition. For example, chimp/toddler comparisons are often executed in settings where chimpanzees are isolated from members of their species, interacting with straight-faced scientists, while toddlers are held by their parents and in the presence of other humans, and receive encouraging words, etc, from those who study them. Under which conditions do you think you'd perform better?

I thought there could have been a little more structure to the book, or perhaps it could have been a little shorter. By the end, it felt rather repetitive: the same themes I've highlighted above, over and over but with different animals. Still it was an enjoyable read (there are worse ways to pad a book than with interesting stories about dolphins and elephants), and the material covered strongly supports a dialectical materialist approach to biology.

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