How Do You Measure the I.Q. of an Octopus?

17:26 minutes

Is a human smarter than an octopus? “It’s really the wrong question to ask,” says primatologist Frans de Waal. “Because I’m smarter than an octopus in things I’m good at, like language and technology. But the octopus is smarter than me in many other ways.”

The trick to measuring animal intelligence, de Waal says, is not to use human standards, but rather the standards of an octopus or elephant or chimpanzee. And as he argues in his new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, too often scientists haven’t done animals that courtesy. In the book, he documents past and present experiments revealing all sorts of animal smarts, from the photographic memory of the chimp Ayumu to the facial recognition abilities of wasps.

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Segment Guests

Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal is the C. H. Candler Professor at Emory University and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Primate Center. De Waal lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Segment Transcript

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. By now you’ve heard the story of Inky the octopus who, under the cover of darkness, squeezed through a crack in his tank top, stretched his long body through a drain hole in the floor, and slithered down a 50 meter pipe to make his escape into the sea from the National Aquarium of New Zealand. Quite impressive unless you’re a pet owner, because if you have a pet, I’m guessing you’ve had moments where you think, hey, this pet is really smart and clever and conniving. But how smart?

How do you measure the IQ of a cat or an octopus? Well, until recently we humans haven’t done a great job at assessing the intelligence of animals. We’re just too prejudiced by our own intelligence, our own way of solving problems, of looking at the world. We think we’re so smart. But then we do dumb things like asking animals to solve human puzzles. When they struggle, we pat ourselves on the backs, assured of our place at the top of the intelligence totem pole.

So how can we give animals a fair shake? Well, a good place to start, according to my next guest, would be, well, let’s test an an elephant. Test elephant smarts on elephant terms. And he documents our quest to measure animal intelligence and emotions in his new book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? And it’s not just about chimps and our next of kin. After you read this book, you may never look at a wasp the same way again. Franz de Waal is a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta. He joins us here in our New York studios. And you can read an excerpt of the book on our site at ScienceFriday.com/smartanimals. Welcome back, Dr de Waal.

FRANS DE WAAL: I’m glad to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Let me start with the name of your book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are. Are we?

FRANS DE WAAL: I hope we are, and I think we could be, but for the last 100 years, we haven’t really shown it because we have been downplaying animal intelligence for 100 years. Animals either worked on the basis of instinct or on the basis of associative learning– you know, like reward and punishment.

And already in the previous century there were people who disagreed with that, like Wolfgang Kohler, the German scientist who would hang a banana high up in the ceiling and see– he would give his chimps a bunch of boxes and see if they used them to get there. And he would describe that his chimps would sit around for a long time and stare at the boxes, and then all of a sudden, they would jump up and stack a few boxes together. So they were performing behavior that they never had been rewarded for, but which was the right behavior to get to the banana. And he called it insight. And the behaviorists and all the opponents of animal intelligence, they got crazy. They really didn’t like to hear that, that animals could think.

IRA FLATOW: When I was in college, we had a psych lab. And I had a psychologist who told me that. He worked in the chimp lab and they would measure intelligence. Just like you say, they put a banana on a shelf, they would leave a stick around, and they would see if he could pick up the stick and knock off the banana. And what the chimp did– he balanced himself on the end of the stick and reached up with his arm and grabbed the banana.

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah, we recently repeated the Kohler test at the Arnhem Zoo, where I used to work. And we put a whole bunch of boxes out there and the bananas high up. And we had a female who did something that Kohler never described and no one has ever described. She picked up her box, and she threw it at the banana, which was very smart, and it worked very well. And so why not, you know?

IRA FLATOW: So you said it’s sort of useless to ask whether humans are more intelligent than, say, an octopus, right? I talked about the octopus who knew how to get out.

FRANS DE WAAL: It’s not a good question. Are you smarter than an octopus? It’s not a good question.

IRA FLATOW: What should we be asking? And how should we be testing them, then?

FRANS DE WAAL: We should be asking– the octopus obviously has cognition going, because cognition is the processing of information. And so how is it shaped? What can he do? What does he use it for? How does he survive through his cognitive solutions to certain problems like camouflage or putting coconut shells around yourself or those kind of things? So how does he solve the problems in his environment? And how it compares to humans is sort of a secondary issue in my mind.

IRA FLATOW: Because animals don’t have to do the things we do, but they have to be smart about what they do in their own world.

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah, and also if you test them on our terms, which we have been doing for the longest time, and you find negative results, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. So for example, elephants have been tested on tool use. You put food outside of the cage, you give them a stick, and you see if they want to do that. And elephants don’t do anything with the stick, whereas a chimp would immediately retrieve the food that way. And so they concluded that elephants don’t have the capacity for tool use. But when they hung up a banana high, and they gave the elephant boxes, he would stand on it. And he would actually bring the boxes in from long distances to stand on the box and reach the food. And so they concluded, yes, they use tools, but they don’t want to use their trunk, to shut off the smelling organ, in order to use tools. And so the elephant is a different animal than a chimp, and a chimp is, again, different from us. And you need to test them on their own terms.

IRA FLATOW: And speaking of chimps, you say in your book that people once tried testing chimps’ facial recognition by showing them human faces. I mean, how well would we do if we had to recognize chimp faces?

FRANS DE WAAL: This was– for the longest time, apes and monkeys were said not to recognize faces. And so human face recognition was absolutely unique. And then, at some point, I learned that they were testing all these animals on human faces. And so we started testing chimps on chimp faces, and they were perfectly good at it. And now, of course, we know that sheep can recognize faces, that wasps can recognize faces.

IRA FLATOW: But you know, anybody who has a pet– and my kids have dogs, and I’m around them all the time. You know that there’s something more going on in their head, but you’re afraid to say anything, right? You shouldn’t be afraid to say– I know the dog looks like it’s smiling, the dog is anticipating my actions. If I throw the ball, it gets ready. It’s eager to do these things.

FRANS DE WAAL: Of course they anticipate actions. They’re predators. That’s their whole business is to anticipate actions. And people are sometimes overly afraid of anthropomorphism because that’s bad to ascribe human emotions or thoughts to animals. I would argue that we loosen up a little bit on that. I don’t say that, for everything your dog does, you need to come up with a high level interpretation.

IRA FLATOW: It’s OK for cats though, right?

FRANS DE WAAL: Oh, cats. But for example, a simple term like jealousy, which sounds very anthropomorphic– if you define jealousy as being sensitive to the relations of your best friend to other relations and so on– you can define it in a way that it’s a completely acceptable term in my mind.

IRA FLATOW: FRANS, we are here in an election season. And I know that you actually started your career in chimpanzee politics. What was that all about?

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah, chimpanzee politics is how chimps form coalitions to achieve power. A chimp male on his own physical abilities cannot really achieve power. He needs supporters. And so chimp males, when they vie for positions, for example, they will try to get female support by tickling the babies of the females and holding them up– a bit like what the political candidates are doing! I’m very interested in this season because Hillary Clinton is obviously different. She’s a female, and she doesn’t hold babies nearly as much as all these male contenders are doing. And my theory is that males need to prove to the community that they are good with kids and you can trust them kids. A female doesn’t need to prove that. We assume that. We’re mammals after all, so females are probably better at this kind of stuff.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that is an interesting theory. I hadn’t heard that theory. It’s interesting.

FRANS DE WAAL: New theory, OK.

IRA FLATOW: I like that. And speaking of holding the chimps, you’ve written about how a baby chimp will laugh when you tickle it, but people object to using the term laugh.

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah, I run into that all the time. I discovered that chimpanzees reconcile after fights, and people would say you need to call it post-conflict contact with mouth to mouth contact or something. So they come up with these terminologies that avoid the connection with human behavior. And I feel we, especially with apes– for other species we can have a discussion about it, but especially with apes, we need to honor the connection by using the same language for the sort of things that they do.

IRA FLATOW: Is that because when you talk about apes, we have a common ancestry, and maybe that’s where we both learned how to laugh?

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah, so the laughing in response to tickling for a chimp is something like–


That kind of sound that they make. So we call it laughing, usually, but there’s always people who object to that. You have to call it laugh-like vocalizations or something like that. So people try to create distance where there is really not much distance. Now if you go to, let’s say, fish behavior or turtle behavior– yes, I can understand that mouth to mouth contact should maybe not be called a kiss. Because it’s maybe not functioning as a kiss.

IRA FLATOW: Our number, 844-724-8255. If you just joined us, we’re talking with FRANS de Waal, who is a primatologist at Emory University, and he’s got a great new book out. It’s called Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? And you can also tweet us @scifri. You know, most people don’t think of insects as having any– flies, stuff like that, being the brainiest creatures around. But you write that wasps, for example, are actually very good at facial recognition.

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah, so there are certain wasps, paper wasps, that live in small hierarchical societies where every member needs to know every other member and needs to know its place. And those wasps, they have special yellow black patches in the face. And the others, they recognize them by them. And there are related wasps, closely related ones, that don’t have that and don’t live in that kind of society, and they don’t have face recognition. And this illustrates an interesting point. You have the capacities that you need. So if you live in a society where it is good to recognize other individuals, you’re going to develop that ability. If you don’t need it, you don’t develop it. And this is true for, I think, all sorts of cognitions in the animal kingdom. They’re always related to what are the requirements of my environment.

IRA FLATOW: So they can see, the wasp can see, many faces. And it needs to see a lot of faces that we would never be able to recognize.

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah, we would probably not be able to recognize wasps, no.

IRA FLATOW: Do animals have what we think of as culture? That’s always something that defines humanity, right?

FRANS DE WAAL: Oh, there are so many studies on animal culture. It started with Imanishi in Japan. I don’t think it’s accidental that it was someone from the east who came up with the concept of animal culture because in the west we were really not ready for that. Because the anthropologists, they would say culture is what makes us human. Well, if you say that, then of course there’s no room for animal culture. So Imanishi said that if you can learn behavior from each other, and as a result, one group of the same species may act quite differently from another group of the same species, he said we should call it culture. And his students very soon thereafter started discovering certain traditions among the monkeys in Japan. And then now it has spread through studies of culture in whales, or in orangutangs, or certainly in chimpanzees, and so on.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about an emotional intelligence animals have. Do you see that sort of thing beyond primates and the mammals, emotional intelligence?

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah, the connection to the emotions of others, which is called empathy, for example, is very developed in mammals. But there are now studies on birds. And I’m actually involved in a study on fish, believe it or not. But we recently had a study on voles, because there are many rodent studies now on empathy, on how you relate to the emotions of others, how you are affected by the emotions of others. So for example, consolation behavior, as I call it, which chimpanzees do– let’s say someone is distressed, and they go over to that individual and they embrace and kiss. Consolation has now been documented in many species, and anyone who has a dog probably has experience with it also.

IRA FLATOW: Here’s a question that’s coming in from the internet from people who are tweeting us. Did your guest, meaning you, contribute to Francis Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order? Is that where I first heard of primate politics?

FRANS DE WAAL: That’s interesting. I think Fukuyama mentioned my book. And he related to my book. He wrote this book The End of History, which, as we have seen, has not really happened, the end of history. And I think he quoted Chimpanzee Politics in there.

IRA FLATOW: Our number, 844-724-8255, talking with FRANS de Waal on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Let’s see. Let let me grab the phone, go to our phone calls here. Let’s go to Jillian in Augusta, Georgia. Hi Jillian.

JOANNE: Hi, this is JoAnne, sorry. I was calling about animal grief. We had three cats at one time when I was a child, and one of them died. And when we buried the one, the other two just hung around the grave meowing. And they were obviously distressed, and I wonder what your guest thinks about that.

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah, I think all animals that have attachments are going to have strong reactions to the death of somebody else. They may also have strong reactions to the disappearance of someone else. But if they can see the body and how still it is, and, for example, especially of course if a female loses her own offspring, but also between mates. There are stories on birds, bonded birds, where one of the mates dies, and a couple of weeks later– I’ve had it happen to some of my own birds, where a couple of weeks later, another one dies. And so as soon as you get attachments, you get strong responses to the loss of somebody else, which is very logical because attachment is that you see each other on a regular basis and enjoy that kind of company.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for calling.

JOANNE: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: And sorry to hear about your animals. Let’s go to Mary in St Louis. Hi, Mary.

MARY: Hi, nice to talk to you both. I just had a comment. And I was going to say I’ve always wondered, ever since I was little, why it’s so difficult for humans to understand that we’re not the only ones who could possibly relate to our environment and other beings in such an intelligent and or emotional, maybe even spiritual, way? What is it holding us back? I don’t understand the problem.

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah, so that’s something I’m struggling with in the book. Why do we always want to compare animals to us, and we need to come out as the smartest of them all? And why have we, for such a long time, declared them dumb, basically, and not seen how smart they are? And there’s, of course, a religious component to it, in the sense that– I call it neo-creationism. There are people, even in philosophy and in psychology and anthropology– people who feel that, yes, we are a product of evolution, but not our mind. Our mind is sort of totally special, and totally separate. It’s a very non-evolutionary approach because, in my mind, everything is connected, and all the intelligences that we see in the animal kingdom are somehow connected.

IRA FLATOW: We have a couple of– the last question I have for you. A couple of people are phoning in and saying, could it be because we eat animals that we don’t acknowledge their intelligence?

FRANS DE WAAL: Well, there is a moral component to all of this. If you start farming, which we started about 15,000 years ago, we started farming. Maybe you need to develop a different attitude to animals, and instead of respecting them or being even in admiration for them, you need to say, well, they’re just animals, and we can do whatever we want to do. So there is a moral component to this attitude.

IRA FLATOW: We don’t like to talk about eating whales and dolphins and things because we know they’re intelligent. So it’s a little more of a problem.

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah, but we eat pigs. And there are certain animals that are intelligent that we eat.

IRA FLATOW: All right. FRANS de Waal, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

FRANS DE WAAL: You’re welcome.

IRA FLATOW: His new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Really great read, especially if you like animals and you want to know a little bit more about them. We have an excerpt from the book at ScienceFriday.com/smartanimals.

After the break, we’re going to look at the state of the world’s coral reefs and how they’ll hold up with increasing temperatures and warmer waters. On this Earth Day, there’s bad news in one of the world’s biggest coral reefs in Australia. We’ll talk about it after this break. Stay with us.

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