Animal smarts: A Q&A with primatologist Frans de Waal

In an interview, the famed Dutch biologist discusses themes of animal cognition, empathy, and morality – subjects he explores in his newest book, "Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?"

Frank Augstein/AP/File
A bonobo mother snuggles her newborn baby at the Zoo in Wuppertal, Germany, in 2014.

In popular books, academic articles, a TED talk, and countless lectures, the prominent Dutch primatologist Frans De Waal has spent his career showing just how many capacities and traits once thought to be distinctly human – from face-recognition to inequality aversion – are in fact broadly shared by many other species of primates. His new book, "Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are" argues that impressive forms of animal intelligence occur throughout the animal kingdom, not simply in the primate order. Our own preconceptions may be the main obstacle to recognizing animal intelligence.

Tell me about the new book.

Until the 1980s researchers usually described animals with the terms “learning” and “instincts” but not “cognition.” That’s changed – now almost every week there’s a new finding in animal cognition. People thought that with inborn behavior and simple associative learning you could explain everything animals did. Now we look at animals not as universal learning mechanisms, but as beings with distinct ways of processing the world. The new book is about animal intelligence in the broadest sense.

What are some interesting examples of animal cognition?

One day a bonobo female picked up a 15-pound rock and put it on her back and walked for half a kilometer. And so my postdoc started filming, knowing that something was about to happen. It’s a bit like if you see someone walking down the street with a ladder – you know that they’re going to use that ladder. The bonobo picked up some nuts and walked to the only place with a hard surface and then used the rock to crack the nuts. She picked up the tool long before she had the food in hand and long before she was at the place she was going to use the tool. Many people think that animals are stuck in the present, but now we have plenty of evidence that they have specific memories of the past and make plans for the future, just like us.

Would you say the animals other than humans have consciousness?

I don’t know what consciousness is. I know that I’m conscious, but I’m not even sure that you’re conscious. You can tell me that you are, but I might not be convinced – it’s a subjective experience. But you might think that there are certain things – metacognition, planning, having specific memories of the past – that are impossible without consciousness. So, for example, apes and one parrot have passed the marshmallow test that psychologists give to children – so they can delay instant gratification for the prospect of a larger future reward. You might say that it’s unlikely that apes and parrots are doing without consciousness the same thing we are doing with consciousness.

What is intelligence?

The successful application of knowledge about the world. All animals have some sort of intelligence.

Does that fact have implications for animal rights?

It has implications for how we look at animals and treat them. The past 25 years have seen a big shift in how people eat, how they look at zoos, how they look agriculture, and how they look at experimentation on animals in labs. And this has happened partly because of the influence of animal behavior researchers. I don’t think necessarily that the implication is that we should stop eating animals, but certainly we should be careful about how we treat them.

It’s interesting that many people have a moral objection to animal cruelty given that morality in rudimentary form is common among animals.

We do a lot of studies on empathy in animals, and we found that they are affected by the mood states and emotions of others. This is getting close to human morality, the basis of which is that we empathize and care about others. Chimps are not into reasoning or justification like we are, but they have the core –what the philosopher David Hume called the moral sentiments. There’s an enormous amount of psychological continuity between humans and our close animal relatives: compassion, empathy, sympathy, reciprocity, cooperation, a sense of fairness and justice.

What’s a good example of moral behavior in animals?

We do studies on prosocial behaviors, situations where a primate can do a favor for another, sometimes at no cost to themselves and sometimes at a cost. When a chimpanzee can select from 2 colors of tokens, they prefer the color that gives food both to them and to another chimp to the color that results in a reward only for one animal.

What are some other capacities animals possess that were once thought to be uniquely human?

The argument of my new book is that if you find one cognitive capacity in one species, usually in the apes, you’re bound to find it elsewhere. I call it rippling. In biology we would call it convergent evolution. There was a time when people believe that only humans were good at face recognition. They tested primates and it appeared that the primates were not good at it. But they had tested the primates with human faces! So we started testing the primates on primate faces, the faces of their own species, and now it’s very well-accepted that they not only perform well, they also use the same brain regions that we do for facial recognition. Face recognition has also been found in sheep and certain wasps. So it’s moved from being uniquely human to being a primate characteristic to now being recognized in other species as well.

Tool use is another beautiful example. We once thought it was limited to humans, but now there are examples not only in primates but also among crows, sea otters, crocodiles, and many other species.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to