Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring Frans de Waal, Biologist, Primatologist, Psychologist, Ethologist, and personal hero of mine. Dr de Waal is a living legend, just look at the man's affiliations, cut-and-pasted from his website:
De Waal is C. H. Candler Professor in the Psychology Department of Emory University and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, in Atlanta, Georgia. Since 2013, he is a Distinguished Professor (Universiteitshoogleraar) at Utrecht University. He has been elected to the (US) National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. In 2007, he was selected by Time as one of The Worlds' 100 Most Influential People Today, and in 2011 by Discover as among 47 (all time) Great Minds of Science. Being editor-in-chief of the journal Behaviour, de Waal has stepped in the footsteps of Niko Tinbergen, one of the founders of ethology.
I approached this writeup by saying, "No pressure, man, just write the post... he's just someone who's work you've followed for decades, that's all."
Dr de Waal began the lecture by joking about the current election, "I wrote a book titled 'Chimpanzee Politics', but this posturing and dick measuring is below chimp politics." He followed this facetious introduction by noting that researchers in the past century downplayed animal intelligence. Behaviorists talked about stimulus and response but eschewed talking about thinking. He identified himself as a primatologist, but noted that he is interested in all animals. He then showed a breathtaking film of Lisala, a female bonobo at the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary, which houses bonobos rescued from the 'bush meat' trade- in the film, Lisala is balancing a rock on her back while also carrying her child. She walks about a kilometer carrying rock and baby, prompting Dr De Waal to note, "You know she's going to use it (the rock)." After the kilometer walk, which ended at a flat, hard surface, Lisala used the rock to crack nuts. Dr De Waal noted of Lisala, "Lisala thinks ahead." The bonobo knew about the nuts, and knew about the hard place, and she carried the rock to the hard place in order to crack the nuts.
Dr de Waal then noted that it used to be thought that animals were 'trapped in the present', but he noted that they are capable of 'time travel'- they exhibit episodic memory and future planning.
The topic of the talk then shifted to Mirror Self Recognition, a topic which was also discussed in January's lecture. Dr de Waal showed a short video of a female bonobo which had been bitten by a male inspecting the puncture wound in her forehead with a smartphone camera. Dr de Waal joked, "If you have a dog that does that, call me!" He then showed a video of a capuchin monkey interacting with a mirror- while the monkey was interested in the mirror, there was no sense of self-recognition. Chimps, upon discovering the 'mirror trick', tend to inspect their mouths and teeth- parts of their own bodies that they have never seen. Female chimps also inspect their behinds, while male chimps are more interested in inspecting the behinds of the females. Dr de Waal noted that the chimps will even check themselves out in his reflective sunglasses.
Dr de Waal then showed us a video of Ayumu, a genius chimp living in the primate research center of Kyoto University, playing a computer game which involves remembering a number sequence:
Ayumu has beaten human competitors at this memorization game, which has upset more than one person. Dr de Waal attributed this to the attitude that humans feel they need to be at the top, noting that the old 'pyramid' had God on top, with the humans coming next, and then a hierarchy of animals, with those most like humans closer to the peak.
Dr de Waal then posed the question, how does one test an animal's 'IQ'? Dogs and cats exhibit very different behaviors, how could one make a comparison? He then enumerated three important criteria for testing animal congnition: Researchers must beware the 'Clever Hans' trap. Intelligence testing must be species appropriate. Researchers must avoid negative evidence.
Clever Hans was an early 20th century performing horse which was reputed to be able to solve arithmetic problems, but was actually basing its responses on its owner's body clues... the horse was smart, but in a different manner than the way it was billed. One way in which to eliminate the 'Clever Hans' effect is to block the animal subject's view of the tester... as this video of retired psychology professor Dr John Pilley and his dog Chaser demonstrates:
Testing must be species appropriate... for instance, elephants are reluctant to use tools with their sensitive trunks. Dr de Waal joked that we test animals better than children, then contrasted the differences between testing human children and testing apes- children have language ability which apes lack, there are no barriers between children and researchers while ape subjects are separated from their testers, child subjects have parental support while apes are tested alone, and most importantly, children are tested by their own species while apes are tested by a different species.
Dr de Waal noted that apes don't ape... while human children imitate human behavior, apes typically don't. In order to test apes' ability to ape, observations of ape-to-ape learning had to be made. Apes do learn from each other, with the learning of a behavior like nut cracking typically taking five to six years. In the Yerkes research center, the chimps choose to enter the Cognition Room- the chimps recognize not only their own names, but the names of the other chimps. They can get their friends if requested to do so. In one particular experiment Dr de Waal and research fellow Victoria Horner dubbed the 'Panpipe Paradigm' (Pan being the chimp's genus), chimpanzees were given long pipes with which they could activate a reward 'hopper' by either poking the hopper or lifting a lever on the hopper. One group of chimpanzees learned to activate the hopper by poking while another learned to lift the lever, with high ranking females of each group transmitting the knowledge to other members of their group (the high-ranking males were too busy with sex and politics to bother with this task and low-ranking females were ignored by higher status chimps). By imitating the behavior of their high-ranking conspecifics, two separate cultural traditions developed, pokers and lifters.
The third criterion for good testing of animal intelligence is to beware of negative evidence- the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In early tests to determine elephants' ability to recognize themselves in mirrors, the elephants were in enclosures with bars, and the mirrors were small and awkwardly placed. The failure of the elephants to pass the mirror test under these circumstances was a failure of the test, not the elephants. Given large enclosures and large mirrors, elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors:
When dealing with negative evidence, the best procedure is to ask, are we asking the right questions? Is it fair to ask whether we humans are smarter than an octopus?
The lecture then shifted to tool use in animals. It was long held that 'Man is a Tool-Using Animal'. In the early 20th century, German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler tested chimpanzees' problem-solving skills by placing chimps in an enclosure in which bananas were suspended from above, with sticks and crates scattered around the floor. The chimpanzees figured out how to stack the crates in order to reach the reward:
Dr de Waal joked that Köhler's name was 'hissed by psychologists'. He then showed a video of a female chimp which solved Köhler's problem by throwing a box at the suspended bananas, knocking them to the ground, quipping that she had stumbled upon the 'unofficial solution'. He then showed a remarkable video of a chimpanzee downing a drone that was being used to film at a Dutch zoo:
He followed this up by joking, "Welcome to our chimp overlords." He then showed us a video of capuchin monkeys cracking palm nuts with rocks. He noted that the characterization of "Man the Tool User" had to shift to "Man the Tool Maker". Then he noted that chimpanzees make tools, as do New Caledonian crows:
The new claim is that humans make tools to make tools... Dr de Waal noted that chimps have entered the Stone Age, and joked that chimp people are unhappy with competition: "My dolphins are smarter than your chimps." He noted that, with New Caledonian crows making tools in the field, and Aesop's fable of the crow and the pitcher being replicated, the corvids are posing a big challenge to the primate people.
To make matters even more of a challenge for the primate-centric, he showed a video of an octopus carrying a coconut shell to use as a portable shelter, noting that the locomotion of the octopus involves a strong cognitive component:
And an alligator using a stick as a lure for nesting egrets:
Dr de Waal noted that there is a 'Cognitive Ripple Effect'- after tool use was observed in apes, it began to be observed in other animals- monkeys then crows, then alligators... Every cognitive capacity we find in other animals ends up being older and more widespread than we thought. He indicated that while rats and pigeons make good research subjects, studies using them don't apply equally to other species. A wide range of species needs to be studied to gain a better understanding of cognition... noted that social paper wasps can recognize each others' faces while non-colonial wasps cannot. He noted that animals have the cognitive abilities they need due to natural history and ecology.
Dr de Waal quipped that 'animal cognition' was a dirty word in the 1980s... we will never know what animals think. He noted that anthropomorphism, the (mis)attribution of human qualities to non-humans, was something to be avoided, but he questioned whether concerns about anthropomorphism should apply to chimpanzees and other animals closely related to humans. He cited the example of kissing, noting that kissing gouramis appear to kiss when engaging in mouth-to-mouth combat, while chimpanzees kiss to reconcile with each other and those dirty, sexy bonobos engage in tongue kissing. Dr de Waal urged the audience, if similar species engage in similar behavior under similar circumstances, use the same label. Having similar traits due to shared ancestry is homology- homologies are important and deserve the same terminology- the forelimb extremities of humans and chimps have the same function and the same origin, they should both be labeled 'hands'.
If a gorilla is tickled, call the resultant sound laughter, there's no need for obfuscation. Dr de Waal noted that laughter is an animalistic behavior, we lose control of ourselves when we laugh. He then showed video of Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin laughing uncontrollably:
Dr de Waal advised us to honor the similarities between humans and our relatives, not to deny them. He presented us with a neologism- anthropodenial: the a priori denial that animals can have human-like mental experiences. He illustrated such experiences by discussing Dr Sarah Brosnan's monkey fairness experiment, in which two monkeys are given unequal rewards, with familiar results... here's Dr de Waal showing video of the experiment:
This experiment apparently raised a bit of a controversy, Dr de Waal joked about the torrent of mail he received, with one philosopher indignantly claiming that it's impossible that monkeys know fairness, because fairness was discovered during the French Revolution, and numerous economists complaining that monkeys aren't economists. He then showed a video of two children, one given a whole cookie and one a half cookie (indignantly thrown to the floor), noting that mothers do this under protocols that would never be approved in animal studies. He noted that the rejection of the sub-par reward is an irrational response, because half a cookie is better than no cookie at all.
I was unable to get in a question during the Q&A... not only was the main room packed to capacity, but front-of-house was filled, with those outside getting the audio feed. One questioner asked if empathy was limited to mammals, and Dr de Waal indicated that he was setting up an experiment to determine if fish had a capacity for it. Another question regarded intelligence versus instinct- Dr de Waal opined that the line between them was hard to draw, giving the example of the weaverbirds, the males of which build complex nests- while all males build nests, some are better at it than others, and females prefer males who build better nests. Dr de Waal stated that it is difficult to distinguish biological tendencies and learned tendencies. He finished the night by urging us all to realize that all organisms are interconnected, and to cherish these connections.
All-in-all, Dr de Waal delivered a fantastic lecture to a packed house. Once again, the 'Secret Science Sweet Spot' was hit- the lecture was informative-yet-accessible, with great video accompaniment and humorous touches. Dr de Waal is a titan in the field of ethology, and it was a privilege to hear him speak. After the Q&A, he had a book signing, with copies of his new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, on sale. Unfortunately, I had to bug out as soon as the talk was over in order to get to work an uncharacteristic Tuesday half-shift. At any rate, kudos to Dr de Waal, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House.
Here's a nice one-on-one interview with Dr de Waal on the topic of animals' feelings:
Speaking of feelings, I get a real sense that the man has a love for his subjects... he's a guy I'm glad I share the planet with.