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Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not all three star reviews are the same. Most of the time, 3 stars means “yeah, it was good. I liked it.” The PB&J experience in book form, if you will. Enjoyable, satisfying, but not something you’re going to recommend to someone to impress them (“oh man, let me make lunch for you, I’ll put together this amazing sandwich!”)

However, every once in a while, you’ll get a book that clocks in at three stars that manages to be full of amazing moments, but is tied up with such tangled problems that the three stars is really more of an average between two metrics: 5 stars for content, 1 star for readability.

I started this book on December 22. Completely coincidentally, I finished it on April 22. It . . . is not a long book.

Science books always have to balance two categories: the level of scientific content and the level of their readability to the layperson (someone like me). In the case of “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are” (henceforth referred to as AWSETKHSAA), the science is good, and interesting, and fun . . . but the readability factor is all over the map.

It’s not that this is a difficult book, either. I’ve tried to read books that are basically trying to explain the physics of black holes to PhD students. AWSETKHSAA is . . . I guess the word I would use is “slippery.” Or “wandering.” I would start in on it, read ten or twenty pages, then my attention would meander off.

The author moves from one experiment to another, talking about this or that, various animals and experiments and results and discussions — and it’s interesting, it really is! — but it’s hard to follow him. If you asked me to briefly summarize each chapter of the book I just finished, I’d have a hard time doing it.

And that’s a shame, because there are great moments throughout. I read several sections aloud, both because they were interesting and fun! “In a recognition test, an octopus was exposed to two different persons, one of whom consistently fed it, whereas the other mildly poked it with a bristle on a stick.” How can you not love the mental image of a scientist poking an octopus with a stick FOR SCIENCE!

Ultimately, the question of recommendation comes down to how curious you are about the premise. There is a lot (a lot!) of great work being done in the field of animal cognition. It’s more complex than I personally had imagined and AWSETKHSAA will give you a great crash course in the work that’s being done across a variety of animal species. That said, this is the kind of book you’d seek out if you’re already interested in the topic. If you’re more of a dilettante with your reading habits (as I tend to be), this one might be too unwieldy.

On the other hand, a scientist does poke an octopus with a stick. So, there’s that.

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