Are we smart enough

We're smart enough to know how smart animals are

Is it unfair to ask if squirrels can count to ten? Do you have to declare chimpanzee nutcracking a culture? Attempt to defend the difference between animals and humans.

What is it like to be a bat? This is what the philosopher Thomas Nagel asked in 1974 in an essay that is still much quoted today. We can only answer: we don't know. We cannot imagine a world of reflected infrasound (echolocation), any more than bats can imagine that people orientate themselves primarily on light and how it is refracted by objects.

But we know that bats find their way through echolocation, we understand the principle, we can describe it, calculate it. The bats have no idea about the capacity of our sense of sight, and there is a reasonable suspicion that they also know nothing about how light is related to magnetism (which they feel in contrast to us).

Naive polemics? Might be. But a fitting answer to the reverse polemics practiced by behavioral researchers like Frans de Waal, coarsened like a woodcut in a sentence with which the University of Vienna announced his lecture: “In recent years, people's demands on their uniqueness have gradually fallen. "

Because, so the argument goes, the intellectual abilities of humans are nothing special, and animals are much smarter than we think. Accordingly, Frans de Waal asks in the title of his most recent, recently published book: "Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?"

Apparently he does. He knows too. And he knows that others know. “Nagel would never have been able to write his astute reflections if he hadn't heard of the echolocation, which was only discovered because scientists tried to imagine what it was like to be a bat and were actually successful at it. This is one of the triumphs of our species' ability to think outside the box of their perceptions. ”This convoluted sentence is a fine example of the recursive structure of our thinking and talking (I know he knows they discovered what it is like ...); and it shows that de Waal knows very well what makes our intellect unique. He just doesn't want to see the qualitative leap from the animal to the human mind - probably triggered by language; For him, as his guild likes to say, that would be speciesism, an inappropriate preference for our species.

We don't have to memorize the nuts

The fact that we humans attach so much importance to abstract thinking and language is "only one way to tackle the problem of survival," he writes. And warns: "It seems extremely unfair to ask whether a squirrel can count to ten if counting is not really important in the life of a squirrel." Because there is not just one type of cognition, but many, and each is an adaptation to a certain environment. The squirrel may not be able to count, but it is wonderful to remember where it has hidden its nuts. We are far inferior to him, says de Waal. What he doesn't say: We can hide this cognitive weakness by writing down the hiding spots, taking photos, possibly locating them with Google Earth. . .

Frans de Waal, of course, is more impressed with the way chimpanzees crack hard nuts with stones, which he reverently calls “one of the most complex tool skills”. We are, he writes, "not the only ones who have experienced a Stone Age: our closest relatives still live in one." With that, he once again put it in a nutshell, without wanting to: monkeys may have a culture - de Waal insists on expanding the term - 'People have a cultural history. The difference would be, as we speciesists like to say, to be able to play the piano. . .

Lecture: Frans de Waal will speak on Friday, June 10th, at 3 pm in the large ballroom of the University of Vienna about "Cognitive Continuity: A Kingdom Full of Special Mental Capacities".

("Die Presse", print edition, June 9th, 2016)