Cohen Center

Dr. Frans de Waal: Are we Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Mon, 20 Feb 2017 5:00 PM - 6:00 PM

Location: Wilson Hall Auditorium

The wall between human and animal intelligence is starting to look like a Swiss cheese. Whereas a mechanistic view of animals prevailed during most of last century, an undercurrent of scientists nourished a more cognitive approach, which by now has become dominant. It started a century ago with the observation that chimpanzees solve problems with a flash of insight. Initially, this kind of research was ridiculed and suppressed, while a taboo was placed on anthropomorphism. From a Darwinian perspective, however, the most parsimonious assumption about closely related species (such as humans and apes) is that behavioral similarity reflects psychological similarity. Anthropomorphism is actually a logical position regarding our closest relatives. Neuroscience increasingly supports this view, and human uniqueness claims have fallen one by one over the last few decades. Other primates are now seen as political, cultural, perhaps even moral beings. This cognitive revolution has been rippling beyond the primates to include the entire animal kingdom, from tool-using crows to cooperating dolphins. Many unexpected new capacities have been discovered, such as that animals are aware of their own knowledge (metacognition) or reflect on past and future (time travel). I will provide a general overview of the methods and findings of animal studies with an accent on primates and elephants, but also including octopuses, corvids, cetaceans, and fish. The central message of this new science, known as evolutionary cognition, is one of mental continuity across all species, with human intelligence being a variety of animal intelligence.

Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal is a Dutch/American ethologist and biologist known for his work on the behavior and social intelligence of primates. His first book, Chimpanzee Politics (1982) compared the schmoozing and scheming of chimpanzees involved in power struggles with that of human politicians. Ever since, de Waal has drawn parallels between primate and human behavior, from peacemaking and morality to culture. His scientific work has been published in technical articles in journals such as Science, Nature, Scientific American, and outlets specialized in animal behavior. His popular books - translated into over twenty languages - have made him one of the world's most visible primatologists. His latest books are The Bonobo and the Atheist (Norton, 2013) and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Norton, 2016).

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. He is also Distinguished Professor at Utrecht University. He has been elected to the (US) National Academy of 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.

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