I love novelized psychology books. I say novelized because the text flows so much more smoothly then an academic research paper, which I admit I love to read also. Yet, there is something exciting about getting to read the words of a well written science journalist. It is even better to read the words of the scientist themselves. You get their thought process and insight which goes beyond just an academic paper.
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are is a bit outside of what I would normally read. I am not an animal lover. I am so fascinated by trying to understand humans I rarely stop to think about animals. In the research I read about animals all the time. Yet, it is always in relation to what it is telling us about human nature. It isn't specific to what it is telling us about the animals themselves. It is ironic that I have never really thought about this considering I live with a teenage son who is fascinated by animal behavioralism and a pre-teen daughter who lives for anything related to cats.
This is a psychology book for animals. Humans are an afterthought, they are actively talked down upon. The field of psychology itself is constantly ridiculed. Since this is my background and fascination I was not thrilled by De Waal's perspective on psychology. I did find the different perspective fascinating. I have rethought about research, specifically research involving animals, in a new way since reading this novel. I will never read a study without thinking what it means for the species in the study, not just what it means for humans.
That being said I have one main grip with this book. De Waal continually equates the amount of neurons with intelligence. He questions if elephant are more intelligent then other species because of the massive quantities of neurons. He also mentions that amount of neurons of octopi and their location throughout their eight limbs. I question his assumption that neurons equate to intelligence. Using human studies to understand animals I would reference studies that look at individuals with autism spectrum disorders. It was found that individuals with autism tend to have larger brain sizes (at first studies using head circumference and later using actual MRI scans). It was also shown that the more neurons in the brain the less verbal and social ability of the individual on the autism spectrum. It is not just the amount of neurons in a brain - it is how well they synch together that helps determine functioning. I am not certain how this would impact De Waal's statements, yet it was a topic that continuously unnerved me as I read.
Overall, I found it to be an interesting read with a perspective that I personally had not encountered before. The writing style flowed well and the entire book kept my interest. I would be interested in reading De Waal's earlier novels.
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