To Each Animal Its Own Cognition

The study of nonhuman intelligence is coming into its own as researchers realize the unique contexts in which distinct species learn and behave.

May 1, 2016
Frans de Waal

W.W. NORTON, MAY 2016 Much of my career has been devoted to watching and testing animals, especially some of the smartest ones, such as chimpanzees and bonobos. But I’ve also spent time observing human skeptics, some of them also very smart. Having devoted all of their attention to small-brained species, such as rats and pigeons, some researchers believe that animal behavior boils down to either instinct or rudimentary forms of learning. But even with regard to their favorite animals, this conclusion is probably wrong, as scientists typically put these organisms in situations that fail to stimulate their full behavioral potential.

Because I greatly admire the intelligence of animals, I decided to write a book, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?, that both celebrates the smartness of animals and dissects the challenges facing scientists who study them. Are we innovative and open-minded enough? Nowadays, a growing number of researchers appreciate and explore animal cognition, conducting experiments to illuminate striking capacities, from planning for the future to theory-of-mind political tactics. The latter was my first interest, which I explored in my 1982 book Chimpanzee Politics.

The study of animal cognition predates my own interests by decades. Even during the darkest hours of behaviorism in the early 20th century, there were brave exceptions, such as Edward Tolman, Wolfgang Köhler, Nadia Kohts, and Robert Yerkes, who all proposed that animals are capable of insightful problem solving. These pioneering researchers saw animals think, not just learn. They worked mostly under the radar, however, and were forced to publish in second-tier journals. Nonetheless, they erected the signposts indicating the direction of things to come.

The best way to appreciate animal intelligence is to take the natural behavior of each species into account. The idea of universality—that all animals follow essentially the same rules of learning—is anathema to most biologists. It is impossible to extrapolate from rat behavior to that of the entire animal kingdom. Each species has its own senses, its own natural history, and its own ecological problems to solve. We cannot expect an echolocating bat to have the same cognition as a visual creature like ourselves, or an elephant to approach problems the same way an octopus would. Every species has its own Umwelt (German for “the surrounding world”), a concept developed early last century by biologist Jakob von Uexküll. Each organism perceives the environment in its own way, he said. His prime example was the eyeless tick, which climbs onto a grass stem to wait for the smell of butyric acid wafting from mammalian skin. We can only understand an organism if we try to enter its Umwelt.

In my book I give many examples of animals solving problems in their own habitats, or problems that we present them with in controlled laboratory settings, always taking into account what their Umwelt is like.

The relatively new science of animal cognition is in bloom now that researchers have become more sensitive to the different abilities that each species brings to the table. Instead of trying to find a cookie-cutter cognition, we recognize the immense variation in cognition, and look for ways to demonstrate the diverse highlights. New findings consistently point to sophisticated animal cognition, often with compelling videos to back them up. We hear that rats may regret their decisions, that crows manufacture tools, that octopuses recognize human faces, or that special neurons allow monkeys to learn from each other’s mistakes. We speak openly about culture in animals, or their abilities to feel empathy or friendship. Nothing is off limits anymore, not even the rationality that was once considered humanity’s trademark.

We live in exciting times indeed. I felt it was time to review how we got here, look back at the historical resistance, and look forward to the appreciation of the animal mind that is providing the study of cognition with a truly evolutionary perspective. 

Frans de Waal is the C. H. Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Read an excerpt from Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?