de Waal: “The Brains of the Animal Kingdom”

Frans de Waal, a renowned primatologist and ethologist, has an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, in advance of his most recent book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates, which was released today. Here’s an excerpt:

Underlying many of our mistaken beliefs about animal intelligence is the problem of negative evidence. If I walk through a forest in Georgia, where I live, and fail to see or hear the pileated woodpecker, am I permitted to conclude that the bird is absent? Of course not. We know how easily these splendid woodpeckers hop around tree trunks to stay out of sight. All I can say is that I lack evidence.

It is quite puzzling, therefore, why the field of animal cognition has such a long history of claims about the absence of capacities based on just a few strolls through the forest. Such conclusions contradict the famous dictum of experimental psychology according to which “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” . . .

The one historical constant in my field is that each time a claim of human uniqueness bites the dust, other claims quickly take its place. Meanwhile, science keeps chipping away at the wall that separates us from the other animals. We have moved from viewing animals as instinct-driven stimulus-response machines to seeing them as sophisticated decision makers.

Aristotle’s ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.

The Brains of the Animal Kingdom | WSJ

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