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Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Frans de Waal · 3 HN comments
HN Books has aggregated all Hacker News stories and comments that mention "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" by Frans de Waal.
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Amazon Summary
A New York Times bestseller: "A passionate and convincing case for the sophistication of nonhuman minds." ―Alison Gopnik, The Atlantic Hailed as a classic, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? explores the oddities and complexities of animal cognition―in crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, bats, chimpanzees, and bonobos―to reveal how smart animals really are, and how we’ve underestimated their abilities for too long. Did you know that octopuses use coconut shells as tools, that elephants classify humans by gender and language, and that there is a young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University whose flash memory puts that of humans to shame? Fascinating, entertaining, and deeply informed, de Waal’s landmark work will convince you to rethink everything you thought you knew about animal―and human―intelligence. 32 illlustrations
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Hacker News Stories and Comments

All the comments and stories posted to Hacker News that reference this book.
There was a funny related example of the African Gray parrot Alex surprising the trainers by silently counting in his head.

They were training a younger parrot and trying to get the younger parrot to count to two by tapping twice.

Alex overheard the training and got impatient with the other bird. He yelled out “two” and then after two more taps “four” and then “six”.

The trainers were just expecting “two” each time.

It was this book:

The book is interesting and goes into how humans need to set up experiments properly to actually test non-human animals in ways that make sense (rather than just in some biased human way).

One quick example was testing tool use, the original experimenters left branches on the ground for the monkeys to use, but the monkeys can’t pick stuff up that’s flat on the ground since they’re normally in trees (their hands don’t have thumbs that move that way). When he redid the experiment with the tool raised they were able to grab and use it.

Same author also wrote Chimpanzee Politics and did this great video experiment:

There was this horse named Clever Hans whose trick was that you could give him a math problem and he would tap out the answer with his hoof. Of course, his powers were fake, but the way he actually did it is brilliant.

When the number of taps approached the correct answer, his trainer became excited. Hans picked up on this and stopped right when the trainer's excitement reached its peak. The trainer had no idea this was happening. He was fooled by a horse.

That ability sounds superhuman. Are there human people who can reliably repeat that -- perhaps performance magicians who mastered that as a trick? ("Set out the cards one by one, and I'll stop you when you place the secret card that only you know").
And there’s that famous computer vision story of a model that was supposed to detect tanks in images but actually just detected whether or not it was sunny (all the tank pictures in the training set were sunny, non tanks overcast).

Children will make similar classification errors when learning too.

None of this means that it’s not possible they can also learn counting, but just that scientists need to be clever about experimental design. The book goes into that.

The tank story is urban legend.

Thanks - good to know the truth around that specific story.

The example and class of failure (even if it didn't actually occur in this specific case) is still the point I was trying to make. Those types of failures can happen - even if the specifics of the tank example are urban legend.

Even more affecting to me was Alex asking what colour he was:
He said no such thing he was asking what color a parrot in the mirror was.
We can't know for certain (at least not from that article), but there is some evidence that at least a few exceptional birds can pass the mirror test, and Alex certainly appears to have been an exceptional bird. It's plausible that he understood it was his own image.
You may appreciate this poignant sci-fi short story/video that references and expands on the story of Alex:
Looks like the Ted Chiang short story? Thanks - it’s great.

I’d recommend his other stories too if you like that one.

I’ve also got a bunch of links to other stories I’ve liked here too:

Alex, that's the one who called an apple a "banerry", right? :)
A dog I live with, not technically mine, can count to at least three. She hates waiting in her harness before we go on walks, and has learned that I am ready to go after taking three poop bags. If I only pull two bags, she won’t come downstairs and wait by the door. If I pull the third bag, she immediately walks down the stairs. I noticed it the other day because I had two bags on me; so, she only heard me pull one bag and refused to walk downstairs. Then I pulled a second one, still nothing. Finally, I pulled the third one and she immediately trotted on down. Now that I’m aware of it, I’ve been paying attention and yep... she only ever comes down after hearing a third bag. I’ve been pretty shocked by it to be honest (in a good way)...
This reaction to quantity does not imply the concept of number.
Surely it implies an ability to count incrementally, which is all OP was implying? The dog does not have to abstract the concept of '3' to be able to count- it's still very interesting.
> Surely it implies an ability to count incrementally

Not necessarily. It could be just ability observe scale not individual numbers. i.e. 3 bags look big enough amount of bags for a walk not that there are 3 bags. Would the dog not come when 4 bags are taken? What if 2 bigger bags are taken? It's kinda hard to deduce anything from this anecdote other than the dog seems to understand a pattern.

Perhaps I was reading too far into OP's anecdote then, but it seemed there was a delay between bag pulls, and that only after the third bag the dog responded. I also was under the impression that this was occuring out of direct line of sight (as the dog was coming down the stairs following the third bag) and so suggested the dog was interpreting the pulls incrementally rather than picking up on the handful of three bags through direct observation.
That's not the conclusion: no one is claiming "as smart as humans". Intelligence is multidimensional, and along some dimensions animals outperform us by a long shot.

Some birds remember thousands of locations of their stashed food. Some animals have a detailed internal map of many square miles of land on which they live. Pick just about anything a typical 3 year old can do, and we can find an animal to outperform them in that respect.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Sure they were; that's what the title implies. Else, why the comparison?

And I'm curious if those studies of animal intelligence, actually tried a human. Could I remember thousands of place I put stuff? I think I do. I have a whole house full of stuff, and can find most of it quickly. I remember where I kept my socks in an apartment I lived in 30 years ago.

So yeah no, animals maybe aren't ahead of us in cognitive function.

Animals certianly aren't ahead of us in human cognitive function, but that feels like a loaded competition. Humans do have a hard time imagining intelligence as anything other than what we have.
Not me. I can easily imagine animals having better senses and better integration of those senses.

But I have to doubt, when somebody claims (as in the title above) that some animal is cognitively more advanced that a human child. That's linkbait and best, and plain wrong at bottom.

Glad to see someone else referenced this book. For anyone who wants to learn more about just how difficult it is to peer into the minds of other creatures, I highly recommend this book. Also, it's filled with delightful anecdotes of animal behavior that you would only experience if you spent hundreds of hours observing an individual.
Feb 08, 2020 · chris_st on The Sensitive Plant
If you liked this article, you might enjoy the book "Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?" by Frans de Waal [0]. He does a great job of describing all kinds of surprisingly intelligent animal behaviors, and some very clever tests to decide how and when they apply.

Interestingly, about 30% or so of the book is kind of a rant against other animal behaviorists who have an "animals are stupid, and no amount of proof to the contrary will shake that belief" attitude. But that yields some pretty entertaining stories (and interesting experiments) as well :-)


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