Animal Consciousness

Frans De Waal, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? (W.W. Norton, 2016)

I am very, very modern (2007-style), so for me summer reading means a Kindle power-up. I am also rather, rather lazy so I tend to find a seam of books and follow it until I’m loaded. One time, it was ‘Last Man’ fiction. This time, it was crossover-popular psychology-ish books. One of them was this book by Frans De Waal. I have bashed away at the topic of animal minds a few times before, like here and here, so it caught my eye.
      I like the way that De Waal is mostly patient but also at times a bit impatient as he assembles the evidence for animal consciousness and intelligence. He argues for gradual continuity between the species, and not so much of a decisive gap between humans and others. For example, he maintains that various kinds of animals have a proven ability to engage in metacognition (reflecting on their own thinking; it cropped up here as something that might be considered human-only).
      Now, I am aware that there are philosophical thickets awaiting those who try to make claims about consciousness, and I dare say De Waal hasn’t cut through all of those to everyone’s satisfaction. He won me over, though, to a very large extent, perhaps because I am susceptible to good stories. The two which struck me most…


* In Twofold Bay, Australia, humans and orcas collaborated for decades in hunting humpback whales. The orcas arrived in the bay making distinctive signs, and then guided the humans to the humpbacks; the humans made the kill and left the carcass in the sea, tied to a buoy; the orcas ate the bits they like best (lips and tongue) and left the rest, as they always do; the humans then retrieved the remainder and made use of it. Now that’s not exactly a lovely story of inter-species cooperation, but I found it a pretty amazing one. The key thing is: why not take it that the orcas are actively exercising astuteness regarding the motives and likely actions of others? We know that’s what the humans are doing. More info here. Oh yes, the town where this happened is called ‘Eden’. Ironic.
* Some primates have been trained in sign language and show a remarkable ability to do very human things. Some think that ‘conceptual blending’ is a crucial evolved capacity that enables us to respond to new environments and come up with creative solutions. We take two familiar concepts and blend them to apprehend something new. The key people in this field are Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner. It’s a way of thinking that offers a lot to literary criticism, I think, because we can see it happening in metaphors, and I tried to do a bit with it in my book Shakespeare, Rhetoric and Cognition (2011; which is really quite a long time ago!). So of course I was struck when De Waal related how a gorilla, on seeing a zebra for the first time, made the signs for ‘white’ and ‘tiger’; and how a chimpanzee, on seeing a swan, made the signs for ‘water’ and ‘bird’. This seems so simple and basic, but really I don’t think it is.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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