My brother-in-law was a shepherd for a decade and wrote this wonderfully artful memoir about the experience. His pet peeve was that people would not infrequently ask him, “Aren’t sheep very stupid?” His ready answer was, “They’re smart enough to be successful sheep.”
I am reminded of this by the fact that the incredibly prolific primatologist, Frans De Waal has written yet another book called Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?
De Waal is perhaps the most visible scientist out there still beating the drum for what I call the “politics of the Enlightenment,” which I blogged about here. The idea is that: no, the earth is not the center of the universe, no God did not create man, and yes we’re just an ape that got lucky. In the halls of academe the idea of the “ladder of life,” in which there is a progression of lower forms of life leading up to human beings continues to be the ultimate politically incorrect faux pas.
De Waal made his reputation with an evolutionary classic in 1982 called Chimpanzee Politics, in which he stressed the competitive nature of chimpanzees. However, since then he has written no less than seven books stressing “humane” qualities in animals, such as empathy, consolation, reciprocity, and fairness. His main anti-ladder thrust is to challenge the bias that morality is solely a modern human phenomenon resulting from culture and religion, and to demonstrate that it actually has roots in animal behavior: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEQuIDqY6Cc
My reaction to his work is: okay, mammals have these rudiments of morality (which clearly “spread” from the mother-breast-infant bond), but there’s not just a small difference between us and apes, it’s HUGE, and the interesting question is
WHAT HAPPENED IN BETWEEN THEM AND US?
Now in this book De Waal is reveals his anti-ladder politics in the title of this book in the area of animal intelligence. The subject of the gap between animals and humans has been thoroughly discussed, and this book does not move the ball forward. Here is where the debate stands:
In the book Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind (2007), authors Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth determined that every single baboon knows exactly where he or she stands, at a particular moment in time, in their somewhat fluid hierarchies of approximately one hundred animals—and all behave according to these hierarchical rules. It is well established that apes can form a “theory of mind” meaning that they can do first or second order “I think that she thinks that I think” type analysis. And as for knowledge built on pure associations, there’s no limit: our dog Tulip has “walked back” all our many behaviors associated with taking her out for a walk to our very first move: she goes bananas at the sound of the cap on the sunblock popping open!
But the preponderance of opinion agrees with evolutionary psychologist Michael Tomasello that the sharing of intentions is the basis of our unique intelligence. You point out a beautiful bird to your 1+ year old grand-daughter with the intention of simply sharing the experience with her. When she “gets it” by babbling gleefully, something unique in the animal world is happening. All that is gratuitously shared on the internet is merely a reflection of the very foundation of our shared language.
The fact is that all animal intelligence is limited by the reality of evolution taking place at the level of the individual. Here is an abstract from a classic article on the subject by same two researchers, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney (2003) titled “Signalers and Receivers in Animal Communication”:
In animal communication natural selection favors callers who vocalize to affect [i.e. manipulate] the behavior of listeners and listeners who [are selected to] acquire information from vocalizations. . . . The [emotional] mechanisms that cause a signaler to vocalize do not limit a listener’s ability to extract information from the call. Whereas signalers may vocalize to change a listener’s behavior, they do not call to inform others. Listeners acquire information from signalers who do not, in the human sense, intend to provide it.
So, again the only interesting question is:
HOW DID WE BREAK OUT OF THE “SELFISH” CONFINES IMPOSED BY SELECTION TAKING PLACE AT THE LEVEL OF INDIVIDUALS.
Current dogma offers two woefully inadequate answers:
1. “kin selection,” which is the altruism caused by identical genes shared by blood relatives, in other words, nepotism, and
2. The Trump-like “reciprocal altruism” of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”
This blog’s answer to what happened is concisely summarized here and here. Basically, spurred by the threat of extinction, the entire hominin tribe was initiated six million years ago by a shift from natural selection taking place at the level of individuals in apes, over to natural selection taking place at the level of ASSOCIATIONS BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS in hominins. The law of parsimony states that a single, simple explanation unifying an understanding of diverse phenomena is always more correct than multiple, complex explanations. This simple shift in natural selection explains both our uniquely strong instincts for morality (and justice), and our uniquely shared intelligence. . . and much much more. . .