Reader’s Corner: Do we really understand animal intelligence?

“Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” by Frans de Waal; W.W. Norton & Company ($27.95)
“Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” by Frans de Waal; W.W. Norton & Company ($27.95)

Humans think, feel and plan for the future. We design and use tools to our advantage. But what if animals can do these things, too? What if we’ve just never really understood how to discern animal intelligence?

Biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal challenges us to think more like an animal in his bestselling book, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” De Waal is best known for his work on the behavior and intelligence of primates, and this latest book doesn’t disappoint when it comes to making the case for animal intelligence.

He introduces us to Franje, a female chimpanzee, who appears to plan for at least her immediate future. When she leaves her warm inside living space in the morning, she takes along some straw, anticipating that she will later be cold and need a way to keep warm.

Then there’s the chimpanzee Ayumu, who lives at the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Japan. He loves to play computer games and particularly excels at a number memory game where he can recall a random series of numbers from 1 to 9 and tap them out in the right order on a touchscreen. While de Waal was unable to keep track of more than 5 numbers after staring at the screen for many seconds, Ayumu could track five numbers in 201 milliseconds, the bat of an eye. Competing against a British memory champion, Ayumu also emerged as the “chimpion,” de Waal writes.

De Waal offers insights on the latest cognitive studies involving a number of other species as well. For example, scientists have designed tests that show elephants can distinguish between different human languages, react differently to male and female voices, and even recognize changes in their own appearance in a mirror.

De Waal was named one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People by Time Magazine in 2007 and among the 47 All Time Great Minds of Science by Discover Magazine in 2011. In his latest book, he makes the case that our testing methods long have been flawed, leading us to underestimate what animals know — and maybe even feel. This thinking represents a revolution in the study of animal cognition during the past few decades, and he acknowledges that it might pull some humans out of their comfort zones. But that’s something de Waal contends is long overdue.

Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. An interview with Frans de Waal airs in March. Listen to previous shows at, or download our free app from Google Play or the App Store.

“Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” by Frans de Waal; W.W. Norton & Company ($27.95)