In response to “The Smart Set” (Vol. 3, No. 4).

To the editors:

Ludwig Huber concludes his commentary on Frans de Waals’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by highlighting several key points from the book. These insights have wide ranging implications for all the fields discussed by de Waal and they are also particularly relevant to my own work as a neurobiologist. The arguments presented by de Waal could, perhaps, form the basis for a much needed renaissance within the neurosciences.

I have little to add to Huber’s initial commentary: “a remarkable piece of literature, one that summarizes the major topics of cognitive biology in a comprehensive and substantial way.” Indicative of the esteem in which the book is held is the fact that it has been translated into more than ten different languages. A postscript added to the Japanese edition by the primatologist Tetsuro Matsuzawa praises the accuracy of the book’s contents, the exhaustive supporting references, and the illustrations by the author, which capture the essence of his ideas at a glance.1 The exhaustive base of knowledge and references are only a small part of the broader appeal of both the book and de Waal’s work. Much more significant are the philosophical advances the author has made in relation to scientific methodology and our understanding of cognitive evolution.

In the opening chapter, de Waal sets the scene by referring to the Umwelt theory of Jakob von Uexküll, which stresses “an organism’s self-centered, subjective world.”2 “[W]e need to remember,” he writes, “that, as Werner Heisenberg put it, ‘what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.’”3 This challenge to conventional scientific thinking is then extended further by reference to the work of Konrad Lorenz, a Nobel Prize winning zoologist.

Lorenz believed that one could not investigate animals effectively without an intuitive understanding grounded in love and respect. He saw such intuitive insight as quite separated from the methodology of the natural sciences. … Promoting what he called the Ganzheitsbetrachtung (holistic contemplation), Lorenz urged us to grasp the whole animal before zooming in on its various parts.4

Readers are now primed to follow along with de Waal as he attempts to integrate two seemingly opposing schools of animal cognition: ethology and behaviorism.

In his book, De Waal proposes several unique and powerful methods for understanding complex organisms. These emphasize both instrumental and spiritual forms. “The trick is to house the animals socially,” he writes, “hence build large indoor and outdoor areas, where the monkeys can spend most of the day playing, grooming, fighting, catching insects, and so on.”5 With regard to spiritual considerations, de Waal emphasizes the importance of identifying insightful anecdotes and synchronicities. Here he cites Lloyd Morgan, noting that the “simplicity of an explanation is no necessary criterion of its truth.”6 Yet he also recognizes that “we cannot exclude that the event was a fluke, never to be repeated again, or that some decisive aspect went unnoticed.”7 De Waal’s approach appears to be somewhat at odds with the traditional scientific method.8 This traditional tendency towards reductionism led to de Waal’s recognition of the importance of Japanese primatology and a deep respect for its traditions. “Begun by [Kinji] Imanishi right after World War II,” he writes, “this method has become standard in work on long-lived mammals, from dolphins to elephants and primates.”9 The work of de Waal and his colleagues, as presented in this book, would not be possible without this unique philosophical framework.

In concluding his excellent review, Huber reflects on future directions for the field.

[D]e Waal regards cognitive continuity as fundamental. … Continuity of a trait is usually based on common descent. In cognitive evolution, we are facing both divergence and convergence, where similarities may be due to common selective pressure or common descent. … Cognitive behavior is otherwise. … We cannot simply assume continuity as the cause for functional similarities.

It follows that scientists should focus on identifying (neuro)biological mechanisms that explain homology and analogy in relation to the cognitive evolution of animals across the whole spectrum of species, including Homo sapiens. “Breaking down mental capacities into all of these components,” de Waal writes, “may lead to less spectacular headlines, but our theories will be more realistic and informative as a result. It will also require a greater involvement of neuroscience.”10 Regarding the latter, de Waal has been somewhat critical, noting that the role of neuroscience has been rather limited thus far. “Neuroscience may tell us where things happen in the brain,” he remarks, “but this hardly helps us formulate new theories or design insightful tests.” Nevertheless, he remains optimistic for its future prospects.

In the coming decades, it will inevitably become less descriptive and more theoretically relevant to our discipline. In time, a book such as the present one will have a huge amount of neuroscience in it, explaining which brain mechanisms are responsible for the behavior observed.11

To date there are no clear signs that these goals are being achieved. Evidence of progress will hopefully emerge in the not too distant future.

Atsushi Iriki

Atsushi Iriki is a neurobiologist at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan.

  1. “The impact of Japanese primatology,” de Waal writes, “is not always recognized in the West.” Nonetheless, he sees it as a “a major influence, at least for work in the field.” Frans de Waal, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), 60. 
  2. Ibid., 8. 
  3. Ibid., 15. 
  4. Ibid., 19. 
  5. Ibid., 59. 
  6. Ibid., 42. 
  7. Ibid., 42. 
  8. This is a widely accepted approach exemplified by model test-platforms that tend towards simplification, in an attempt to control all causal factors in the system, thus simplifying explanations, often to extremis, whenever possible. 
  9. Ibid., 60. 
  10. Ibid., 273. 
  11. Ibid., 274.