Sonja I. Yoerg - Clever As a Fox

"The journey from genetic code to behavior can be circuitous and capricious, whether that code belongs to a fish or a fisherman. We have to be very careful in slicing the fat of instinct away from the bone of intelligence, lest we have nothing left to sink our teeth into." (p. 32)

"That [study on relative brain size to body mass] puts sharks and rays in the same vicinity as birds and mammals. It makes you doubt whether sharks really 'mistake' a surfer for a seal on a crunchy cracker, doesn't it?" (p. 112)

"The carnivores have stayed ahead at each stage of evolution, as Jerison has shown using cranial fossil casts of extinct herbivores and carnivores. Interestingly, in South America, which is devoid of advanced carnivores, the herbivores have tiny brains. Unchallenged by the mind behind the hungry jaws, these grass munchers lived fruitfully and multiplied in blissful ignorance. In any contest of wits, never bet on the llama." (p. 161)

You may be misled by the title, subtitle (Animal Intelligence and What It Can Teach Us About Ourselves), and cover of this book. In my opinion, the subject matter had little to do with any of the three. Rather, the author does a better job of raising questions than answering them or telling us just how clever (or intelligent) a fox (or any other animal) is. Not that 'answers' that are likely, or possibly, incorrect should be put across as fact, but this book goes to the opposite extreme and leaves the reader with nothing but doubt and questions. As she says, "Better... to know your predispositions and biases than to get tangled in them and miss the facts"--a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree in, but I'd still like the facts.

Without a clear scope or conclusions one is left wondering how much value can be gained from Clever As a Fox. Although witty at times, and graced with words that are frequently well chosen, the objective of animal intelligence teaching us about ourselves is not achieved. When you boil it all down what you are really left with is an agnostic account--agnostic in the sense that Sonja doesn't commit to really knowing anything.

As touched on above, going into my reading of Clever As a Fox I expected, based on the title and cover, the author to attempt to elevate the perceived intelligence of animals. Instead you'll get, if anything, just the opposite. Sonja continually criticizes the "Great Chain of Being" while at the same time digging a huge gulf between humans and all other species. (My favorite quote on the Great Chain of Being, by the way, was, "The Great Chain of Being is, in one sense, a generalization gradient of rights, with species more proximal to us favored with protection and species more distant flavored with sauces." p. 177)

The big question of whether a species actions are based on 'intelligence' or instinct is touched upon but not developed or, certainly, resolved. A book focusing exclusively on that subject would be far more interesting. The discussion on how such a clear cut line between the two cannot be achieved was the most fascinating part of this book.

Finally, I will close with Sonja's reminder, a caution that I had already heard load and clear throughout.

If you have taken away nothing else from this book, you now know that doors closed in haste tend to swing open again (sometimes giving us a good smack on the head); we have barely begun to understand what shape our theories of animal mind should take. If we pretend otherwise, then our assumptions will lead us by the nose to certain facts and straight over others; we might be led astray, as we have been in the past. (p. 198)
Even if the above is true, and even with the cleverness that is woven into parts of the book, such a constant outlook of agnosticism with respect to science doesn't make for the most enlightening or engrossing book.

from the publisher:
Dogs are smarter than cats, dolphins and chimps are more clever than both, and we who determine the rankings top the scale--or so we think. But are we thinking clearly? To appreciate the mental abilities of the owl and the pussycat, the tortoise and the hare, requires a commitment to unraveling the nature of intelligence--a tricky and controversial proposition that Sonja Yoerg sets out to explore in this learned, lucid, and entertaining book about our complicated, often erroneous notions about animal intelligence.

With forays into evolutionary biology, behavioral science, and comparative psychology, Clever as a Fox reveals the promise and pitfalls inherent in any attempt to assess animal intelligence. Along with the concepts we deploy to define and compare intelligence, Yoerg looks at the expectations and prejudices that cloud our judgment of the animal mind, perceptions shaped as much by Aesop and Disney as by direct observation of our fellow creatures. And because such perceptions are inextricably linked with judgments of value--ideas about animal mentality have much to do with which species end up on our laps and which on our plates--this deeply revealing look at how we think about animal intelligence should help us use our own intelligence more wisely.

Sonja I. Yoerg is a former researcher and lecturer in Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

Leavened with humor, Yoerg's clear, logical and well-written discussion of a complex subject will lead even the casual reader in to a much better understanding of the many answers to the question 'what is intelligence?' --Booklist

A lively, literate book, loaded with case studies on animal behavior, intellect, and instinct. --Publisher's Weekly