Frans De Waal
Animal Kingdom

The human race has always had a troubled relationship with animals. You only have to look back at our history with them to see the constant paradoxical nature of our interaction. When we're not keeping animals as pets, we're breeding them en masse for consumption. It's a peculiar relationship and one that irritates famed primatologist Frans De Waal.

De Waal is a Dutch scientist who has spent his whole life studying the complex traits of animals such as bonobos and macaques. Within his line of work, primatology, one of the most emotionally charged terms is anthropomorphism, a name which De Waal has fought against for a long time. We may not be eager to believe that animals are more emotionally aware or ‘awake’ than we think, but this is the very fact that De Waal is out to prove. In his new book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? He demystifies many long-held assumptions to reorient our worldview.

Your latest book is called Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are. Quite a contentious title? What issues were you hoping to raise with it?

I have been in this field for a long time, and I feel that for the last century we have not done our best to appreciate animals. It’s only in the previous 25 years that we’ve started working on it, and there’s a younger generation of scientists who have moved away from the human/animal comparison and moved towards asking, what can animals do that is useful for them in their environment? And what kind of cognition do they have?

We’re still very much focused on things that humans are good at such as tool use, but it’s not the entire focus anymore. So we are doing a much better job at the moment than we did during the last century on this.

What are we looking for when we study animals?  And why should we care about the cognitive capabilities of animals? 

That’s the quest of any naturalist. We may want to know how many butterflies there are, but why do you care how many butterflies there are? Well, it is useful knowledge nowadays with the changing climate to know which butterfly species survive and don’t survive.

As naturalists, we are always curious about nature, and so we investigate everything from how plants grow to how animals solve problems. That’s the basic quest but then on top of that, if we start to understand animal cognition better, we can also get a better grip on human cognition. For example, empathy used to be considered a uniquely human characteristic. I think it’s now widely accepted to be a mammalian characteristic. It’s probably even more widespread than that but anyway let’s say it’s a mammalian characteristic. That means that by studying the empathy expressions in rodents, we can understand something about the empathy expression in humans. And in a way by studying rodents, we also simplify the view of humans. The human opinion has for a long time been that empathy is imagining how someone else feels, but now we know from studies both on humans and animals that it’s not nearly as cognitive as you would think. All of that comes from animal studies.

I think what we’re now seeing is a move towards a phase where we will judge the animals on their terms, where we will test them not so much to see how they compare to humans but to understand the cognition from the perspective of the animal, the umwelt of the animal, the adaptations that it needs and how it survives. And how its cognition serves a purpose in that survival.

Human cognition is going to be brought down a little bit because a lot of the things animals do are similar to what we do, and we have always had a rational explanation of those things. One example is the studies we’ve done on fairness in monkeys. There’s a very famous video clip (below) that you can see on the internet of a monkey with a piece of cucumber and a monkey with a grape and these are the rewards that they get for completing the same task. The monkey that gets the cucumber starts to protest against getting food of less quality.

It’s a very popular video because it can be linked to income inequality which of course is the main issue of the elections here in the US. So we started studying fairness in primates and initially, there was an enormous amount of resistance to it because philosophers and social scientists had assumed that the signs of fairness in humans were a reasoned and logical position.

One of them even wrote to us saying that monkeys can’t have a sense of fairness because fairness was invented during the French revolution. The traditional idea is that something like fairness is a reasoned, logical position that we have arrived at as a species. But this is completely ignoring the fact that it’s based on very basic emotions that you see in young children. Give two young children an unequal amount of cookies, and you’re going to get a reaction out of them. They’re not reasoning like the French revolutionaries; it’s a very basic reaction. So we tend to overestimate how cognitive things are that we do and underestimate our emotions. I think what happens when you study animal cognition and start comparing it with human cognition is that you begin to see that what humans do is not nearly as complicated as people think.


But just continuing off from that point, in our society it seems that on the whole, our attitude towards animals is very apathetic. We keep some animals as pets, but it doesn’t go much beyond that. Would you agree that we have a very peculiar and troubling relationship with animals and nature?

I think that’s maybe true for half of all people. Half of the people keep their distance from animals, and yes they may eat them or even keep them as pets but other than that they’re not particularly interested. They may walk through a park and not see the birds also. Something that for biologists is unimaginable. But there’s another half of humanity who are very keen on animals and very interested not only in nature but also animal behaviour and who walk through a zoo very differently, not for entertainment but with curiosity. So yes more technology-focused people but just as many people who love nature and animals.

To be honest Frans, I don’t think we’re that different from animals anyway; I would say that we’re a lot more emotional than we like to think we are. The neuroscientist Nayef Al-Rodhan hypothesises that we operate on five P’s: Power, Pride, permanence, pleasure and profit. These are very fundamental aspects. Would you agree with this?

Yes, I think so. When we come up with explanations for human behaviour, we always go for the reason and the logic because we love that and we appreciate that in ourselves, but very often the logic comes afterwards.
A decision is usually made on some emotional basis, and then afterwards, you justify it with logic. But it’s not your justification that made you make that decision. Before Charles Darwin got married to his wife, he made a long list of the pros and cons, the positive things of his wife and the negative. Of course, in the end, he decided to marry this woman, and I’m sure he forgot about all the reasons he had listed not to. They didn’t matter because when it comes down to it your decision to marry someone is not a rational decision, it’s an emotional decision.

So, do you think our lack of understanding of animal intelligence has allowed us to be let off the hook in some ways in terms of guilt?

What we’re doing at the moment in understanding the cognition of animals certainly has moral implications. The way that we treat animals, especially in the agricultural industry is quite harmful, and the fact that we now know more about the intelligence and emotions of animals is going to have moral implications. That’s already happening in chimpanzee research which I am very much involved in. I’m part of Chimp Haven which is a sanctuary that receives ex-laboratory chimpanzees because biomedical studies on chimpanzees have stopped. The same thing has happened with circus animals and the killer whales at SeaWorld. That’s now viewed as very negative. All of these things are changing and partly changing under the increased knowledge that we have about animals.

"I think what we’re now seeing is a move towards a phase where we will judge the animals on their own terms."

Frans De Waal

So, how do we know that we’re studying animals in the correct way when we’re approaching the subject from our own very unique perspective?

We never know when we look at the stars in the sky and study the universe that we’re looking at it the right way. Each time someone asks a question slightly differently, we get different answers and new insights. So often it’s the questions you ask that determine what you will see. That’s why in the first chapter of my book I have the Heisenberg quote which says that the reality we see is the reality we have questions about, and the ones we don’t have questions about we don’t understand. So what we will find out about animals is very much determined by how we look at them. The point of my book is that over the last century we haven’t looked nearly as well as we should have because we have tried to simplify what animals do and reduce it to instinct and simple learning, and that’s an insufficient way to explain their behaviour.

I sense a lot of tension in your work. You’re very critical of the way animals have been studied throughout the last century or so.

Yes, I am very dissatisfied by it, and I’ve waged battles, especially with behaviourists over this who have a very simplistic view of animals as stimulus-response machines and try to reduce everything to associative learning. They have been dominant for a long time to the point where anyone who is proposing anything a bit more complicated than that was accused of anthropomorphism and was not taken seriously. They laughed at scientists like Wolfgang Kohler and others who had different views.

It seems to be almost like a criminal charge, this accusation of anthropomorphism.

Yes, people had these very simplified explanations of animal behaviour like it’s either simple instinct or simple learning and as soon as you suggested it was a bit more complicated than that they accused you of anthropomorphism. This is fine maybe concerning rats and pigeons, which were the favourite animals to study in those days, but the apes. There’s a reason why we call the apes anthropoids; they are human-like.

If you take a species very closely related to us like the chimpanzee and he laughs when you tickle him and kisses you when he greets you, calling that something else is not very useful. To call laughing heavy breathing, and to call kissing mouth-to-mouth contact doesn’t solve the issue of the fact that these animals use the same behaviour under the same circumstances as us. So the anthropomorphism charge has helped to drive a wedge between animals and us. In my book, I strongly argue that we shouldn’t be doing that.

As humans, I think we tend to think of ourselves as unique or superior and so set ourselves apart from other animals. Do you think the human ego plays a role in our inability to understand animals?

Yes, the human ego and also the Christian view that we have souls and animals don’t. There’s a fear of bringing animals too close to us because that removes that special status that we have in western culture and religion. Even people who are not religious, and many scientists, of course, are not, will still adopt that position. They may not argue from the bible’s perspective, However, if you look at philosophy and anthropology and social sciences, they still feel that humans are unique, and that’s of course, not a view that we in biology support.

You ask this question in the book, “What if animals possessed a certain kind of intelligence? Especially one that we cherish ourselves?” What kind of intelligence could that be?

That has been the quest. Languages are imperative of course, and words are the only one as you may have noticed for which I make an exception. I think that’s a uniquely human ability, but for most of the other cases, humans are not unusual. Take tool making. Initially, it was said that only humans made tools, then the claim was that only humans modify tools, now I’ve even seen the claim that only humans make tools to make tools.

When we pick something that we’re particularly good at, and we throw it at the animals to see how far they get, they don’t always get as now as we do. And then we’re sort of satisfied. But this is the wrong way of looking at animals. The question of whether you are smarter than an octopus is not an interesting question to me. The interesting questions are, what kind of cognition does the octopus have? And what sort of cognition does it need? What does it do that helps it survive? You could ask the same questions for a bat or an elephant, and ask, is it superior to our intelligence? Echo-location of the bat, for example, is that better than our cognition? I don’t know. It’s different. It’s very important for the bat and less essential for us to.

"The point of my book is that over the last century we haven’t looked nearly as well as we should have because we have tried to simplify what animals do and reduce it to instinct and simple learning, and that’s clearly an insufficient way to explain their behaviour."

Frans De Waal

Recently I saw a study about bottlenose dolphins that concluded that humans might not be entirely alone in terms of developing a sophisticated language. Does a study like this change your views at all?

Well, I’m talking about language as symbolic communication that you develop by yourself because the words that we use are not inborn sounds; they are sounds that we learn. I think language as that a very flexible communication system is unique. That doesn’t mean that animals don’t have complex communication. A language is a form of communication, and I’m sure dolphins have a way of communication, it may be nearly as complicated as a language. Still, I don’t think it has that symbolic quality, so I wouldn’t call it a language. But if these authors mean that dolphins have very complex communication that we don’t fully understand yet but which they can convey things that we cannot even imagine, I have no trouble with that conclusion.

That implication is quite incredible. Is there a lot of new work in that area of science or has it been abandoned?

There’s a lot of work on the vocalisations of primates and birds, and now on marine mammals also. But communication research is interesting. Here too we have taken the wrong approach because people started to try to teach human language to apes. They became very focused on this kind of thing and initially, they got much further than people had imagined. That was very exciting, but in the end, it turned out that what they could do was quite limited. People got disappointed, and so this field has more or less disappeared. But in my view, we took the wrong angle. We started throwing human language at apes to see how far they would get and then the conclusion was that they didn’t get so now. But we should be studying natural ape communication just as we should be studying natural dolphin communication. Instead of taking this anthropocentric perspective, we should be considering what they do in their own lives and how they use it. And yes it will turn out to be much more complicated than we think.

You talk about “the umwelt” in your book, the world as seen by another organism, a world that is entirely different from the one that we see. With this concept in mind, how do you think other animals view us?

I think the way animals see us is dependent on how they interact with us. The animals we keep, especially as pets, have a strong bond with us. The animals that we keep for food may have less of a bond, especially under the current conditions of the agricultural industry. There are also animals in the wild who may see us as enemies, and some of them like pigeons in the city may see us as food providers. So every animal looks at us from the perspective of how they interact with us.

Do you think that some animals have a higher cognition capability and perhaps view us as something more complex than those things that you just mentioned?

My chimpanzees evaluate me constantly, and I think anyone dealing with elephants has that same feeling. Sometimes I even think animals understand humans better than humans understand each other. Humans who are autistic are not so great at judging other humans. So they are sometimes given a companion dog because that dog will protect them against people who have bad intentions that they may not be able to detect.

"Genocide is a human thing that I don’t see an equivalent of in animals. In animals we see killing, we even see warfare...But the systematic killing of a whole population, or attempts to do so, we can proudly say that is a uniquely human behaviour."

Frans De Waal on humans negative traits

In an article published recently in the New York Times, you wrote, “when our ancestors moved from hunting to farming they lost respect for animals and began to look at themselves as the rulers of nature.” Is that a consistent view among most biologists working in your area?

I think it has been a very gradual transition. Initial farmers probably had very close relationships with their animals. They would have known all their animals individually and were perhaps not very eager to kill them even though they knew they had to do this. Nowadays we have a very impersonalised view of animals in the agriculture industry. But the hunter has a very different relationship. I’m not talking about modern hunters with big guns but hunters who go into the forest with primitive weapons to kill large animals. They have an enormous amount of respect for those animals. The hunter not only knows that animals are smart and can escape but also that the animals can attack them. When we became farmers, we started looking at animals quite differently, and we needed to set ourselves a little bit apart from the natural world.

Do humans possess any negative trait in particular that is not seen in other animals?

Genocide is a human thing that I don’t see an equivalent of in animals. In animals, we see killing; we even see warfare. Ants, for example, kill each other on a massive scale. Chimpanzees kill one another on occasion. But the systematic killing of a whole population, or attempts to do so, we can proudly say that is uniquely human behaviour.

What would you like your legacy to be?

I would like to have convinced people that there’s more between us and other species than they may assume and so bring humans down a little bit from their pedestal because I don’t think that has been particularly constructive.

Frans De Waal | Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is out now through WW Norton