Thinking about how they think

Francis Gooding

  • Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
    Granta, 340 pp, £14.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 1 78378 304 5
  • The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst
    Greystone, 272 pp, £16.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 1 77164 248 4

Why should we try to understand the lives of animals? The English moral philosopher Mary Midgley’s Beast and Man (1978) ended with a succinct answer: humankind ‘can neither be understood nor saved alone’. No philosophy can hope to understand ‘human nature’, Midgley argued, without acknowledging our integration into incomparably larger and older natural systems. Unfortunately, the philosophy and science of animal behaviour, as she found it, was not up to the task: it generally set out to prove the scientists’ preconceptions instead of basing its conclusions on close observation. Midgley called for a new approach that built on the work of Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, the mid-20th-century pioneers of animal ethology – the study of animal behaviour as it occurs under natural conditions, or at least under experimental conditions that approximate natural ones. In their view, animal behaviour was determined by real motives and complex drives, not merely mechanical causes and imperatives. Midgley believed this approach could be helpful in rethinking the relationship between human and non-human because it placed all behaviour on the same continuum, rather than treating animals as wholly different phenomena.

Frans de Waal, who has been widely celebrated as an original and iconoclastic primatologist since his ground-breaking Chimpanzee Politics (1982), follows the grand tradition of animal ethology, having studied under Gerard Baerends, Tinbergen’s first student. Like his predecessors, his approach has been holistic and empathetic, as well as rigorously scientific: he treats animals as sentient agents who act with intelligence, emotion and character. This view has often been dismissed as imprecise and anthropomorphic by both hard-headed behaviourists, who hold that animal minds are unknowable and therefore irrelevant to the study of behaviour, and the type of ‘selfish gene’ determinists who hold that animal behaviour can be reduced to gene-automated profit-maximising protocols – ‘biological Thatcherism’, in Midgley’s memorable phrase.

Drawing on his experiences with primates, especially chimpanzees, de Waal suggests that anthropomorphic language, although it can at first seem sentimental, may turn out to be a more accurate, even more scientific, way of describing animal behaviour. ‘Anthropomorphism is problematic only when the human-animal comparison is a stretch,’ he writes, ‘such as with regards to species distant from us.’ Apes often greet each other ‘by placing their lips gently on each other’s mouth or shoulder and hence kiss in a way and under circumstances that greatly resembles human kissing’. Similarly, it may be that the hoarse breathing that young chimps produce when they’re tickled is best described as laughing. Even the way they behave towards the person doing the tickling seems familiar, first pushing the tickler’s hand away then coming back ‘begging for more, holding their breath while awaiting the next poke in their belly’. Some argue that calling the apes’ behaviours ‘kissing’ and ‘laughing’ introduces unwarranted associations with specifically human behaviour and therefore misinterprets what’s happening. But to de Waal, this position is both silly and unscientific:

Dubbing an ape’s kiss ‘mouth to mouth contact’ so as to avoid anthropomorphism deliberately obfuscates the meaning of the behaviour. It would be like assigning Earth’s gravity a different name from the moon’s, just because we think Earth is special. Unjustified linguistic barriers fragment the unity with which nature presents us. Apes and humans did not have enough time to independently evolve strikingly similar behaviour, such as lip contact in greeting or noisy breathing in response to tickling. Our terminology should honour the obvious evolutionary connections.

This isn’t just an argument about language: it’s about recognising genuine biological similarities between human and non-human behaviour. De Waal, like Midgley and Lorenz, has always been interested in the cognitive and behavioural continuities between humans and other creatures rather than the differences. ‘We’re not comparing two separate categories of intelligence,’ he writes, ‘but rather considering variation within a single one. I look at human cognition as a variety of animal cognition.’ Examining those connections without obscuring them with ‘anthropodenial’ – ‘the a priori rejection of humanlike traits in other animals or animal-like traits in us’ – is essential if we are to shed the anthropocentric attitudes that distort the study of animal intelligence.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in