Animal Intelligence: An Exchange with Abraham Stone and Frans de Waal

Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:

ScreenHunter_03 Mar. 13 14.27 I recently had a long-distance exchange with two very interesting thinkers –the eminent primatologist Frans de Waal, and the philosopher Abraham Stone, himself approaching eminence– concerning the scientific study of animal intelligence; the epistemological problem of the interpretation of data on animal intelligence; the inadequacy of most 'science writers' to the task of communicating what is at stake in the study of animal intelligence; and other no less interesting matters.

The exchange initially began from what I took to be a typically disappointing science writer's article at Discovery, by Jennifer Viegas, concerning some purportedly new signs of elephant intelligence. Have a look at that article before reading on, so that you might better understand how this exchange got rolling.

I took issue with the author's observation that “[o]ther animals clearly engage in teamwork,” while by contrast one of the scientists involved in the study, Joshua Plotnik, “thinks they are 'pre-programmed for it', unlike elephants that seem to understand the full process.” I wanted to know, in response, what kind of empirical evidence could ever ground such a distinction. Moreover, I wanted to know whether understanding is really incompatible with pre-programming. Those were my deep concerns about animal-intelligence research. I also expressed a concern about Viegas's style of science writing, namely that the condescension and cutesiness of it (using words like 'yummy' and easy alliterations) did not inevitably transform any intelligence animals might display into the same old familiar circus performance, if now in print or on screen, rather than in the three rings of old.

More here.