Interview: Frans de Waal, primatologist

The title of Frans de Waal’s new book, “Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?”, comes to us as a question. De Waals, a primatologist who teaches at Emory University, is well known for his research on non-human animal intelligence. He has studied both animals and their human observers and for over thirty years challenged the notion that humans alone are capable of cooperation, empathy and problem solving. His new book is full of stories about how researchers had to look at how they formulated their research before they could begin to understand the animals they are studying. In his book he comments at length about how our views of other species of animals are changing as we as humans become more attuned to how other species process information. A good introduction to de Waals and his work is in a TED Talk he gave on moral behavior in animals

Link to Frans de Waal’s TED Talk on animal intelligence

INtown asked de Waals to go a little further and talk about what animals have to teach us. He commented on bonobos, elephants, dolphins, crows, and our beloved pets, cats and dogs. De Waals will read and discuss his book at the Decatur Book Festival on Sept. 3 at 4:15 p.m at the First Baptist Sanctuary.

Bonobos, the primate hippies, the make-love-not-war apes, teach us that violence is not needed to have a successful society. Also that male dominance is not universal, not even among our closest relatives.

It is very hard for us to understand animals so different from ourselves. We can easily relate to apes since our bodies and brains are nearly the same, since we are primates, too. But dolphins live in an entirely different environment, have no hands, but have echolocation and underwater communication. They call each other by name (each individual has a special signature call, and others occasionally use this call to call them), and remember each other for twenty years or more even if separated in the meantime.

One can be quite elegant while being big and heavy. It has been found that elephants not only have a larger brain than humans but also three times more neurons. Until recently, it was thought we had most neurons of all.

Crows teach us that even despised, noisy birds used in scary movies may actually be smarter than we think. They have big brains, use tools, and solve problems that your average dog cannot solve. Think of this before throwing stones (or worse) at them.

Domestic cats and dogs
Since we love our pets, they are the bridge that makes people see how emotional and smart animals are, each with their own personality. Our pets provide a bridge to the rest of the animal kingdom as they open our eyes to general animal intelligence.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s