The Sciences



Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news


Are Animals Smarter Than We Think?

Two intelligent humans assess the mental feats of wild creatures and come to opposite conclusions

By Sy Montgomery

Courtesy of

Kanzi, a bonobo chimp, taps strings of lexigrams on a keyboard to create sentences. He acquired the skill by watching his adopted mother’s lessons.

Betty, a New Caledonian crow at the University of Oxford, needed a hooked wire to retrieve a bucket containing a treat. So she wedged a straight wire into a crack in the lab’s table and bent it, creating the right tool. Sheba, a chimp at Ohio State University, was trained to collect up to four oranges and then choose a numeral—1, 2, 3, or 4—to show how many she’d found. Kanzi, a bonobo chimp at the Georgia State University Language Research Center in Atlanta, communicates with his trainers using symbols on a keyboard. He understands the difference between sentences like “Pour the lemonade in the Coke” and “Pour the Coke in the lemonade.”

What’s going on here? Are these animals thinking or using language? Or are we projecting human abilities onto nonhuman animals? Two new books that grapple with the nature of intelligence in the nonhuman world offer vastly different conclusions. In Do Animals Think? University of Florida psychologist Clive Wynne argues that the mental feats of nonhuman animals are all in our heads—not theirs. He claims that language is ours alone and that animals’ seemingly complex responses to problems are achieved by automatic mechanisms, not by thought. But how did humans acquire the ability to use language and practice culture? Not through some “mutational miracle,” writes journalist Tim Friend. In Animal Talk, he argues that culture, language, and mathematical skills emerged thanks to a process common to all living creatures: evolution. We think because thinking is adaptive. Therefore we should expect to see similar cognitive abilities in both human and nonhuman animals.

Friend’s book is filled with examples of such sophisticated animal behaviors. Male humpback whales compose and seasonally alter lengthy, complex songs. Vervet monkeys distinguish between snakes and eagles by different alarm calls. A tree frog partially submerges itself in the water of a tree hole and then adjusts its call to the size of the hole to play the tree like a musical instrument. Friend makes the case for an “animal Esperanto” that even humans can learn to understand. “Humans and animals alike, regardless of race or species, talk about the same things every day—that is, sex, real estate, who’s boss, and what’s for dinner,” he writes.

It might look that way, counters Wynne, but animals simply don’t think the way we do. Sheba the mathematical chimp, for example, may not have been adding, but merely memorizing by rote. Some animals might be capable of elementary problem solving, he concedes. But “the psychological abilities that make human culture possible,” he argues, “are almost entirely lacking in any other species.” Where Friend sees continuity between humans and everyone else, Wynne sees a sharp divide.

From a biological standpoint, such a division makes no sense. We share about 99 percent of our genetic material with chimps (and over 30 percent with daisies). To divide the animate world into two categories, one consisting of a single animal species (us) and another made up of the remaining 5 million to 50 million, is as scientifically useless as saying the universe is composed only of Gouda cheese and substances that are not Gouda cheese.

Even if Wynne’s dogma can be frustrating, his book, like Friend’s, is a fun read. Both are packed with clever experiments, intriguing anecdotes, and a delight in the diversity of animal behavior. Wynne, for example, regales the reader with tales of bees trapped in flowers by their tongues, or with the fact that most animals can’t count beyond seven—but neither can most people, if objects are flashed in front of them faster than they can count in words. So dazzled is Wynne by such wonders that even he sometimes seems deflected from his debunking mission. He is particularly charmed by insect-eating bats, who measure distance by timing echoes bouncing back from sounds they generate as they fly. “Let’s not worry about what they might be conscious of,” he writes of the bats. “Let’s just enjoy our opportunity to be conscious of them.” Indeed. 

Animal Talk: Breaking the Codes of Animal Language

By Tim Friend, Free Press, $25

Do Animals Think?

By Clive D. Wynne, Princeton University Press, $26.95


Courtesy of

DocuPen Portable Scanner

Planon System Solutions Inc., $199.99

DocuPen, the world’s smallest full-page scanner, is eight inches long and weighs just two ounces, but it has ample memory to store Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play, along with Macbeth, his shortest and bloodiest tragedy. Powered by four 1.55-volt silver oxide camera batteries, the scanner gobbles up a full page of text with a single squeegee-style sweep, as shown below. Designers of the DocuPen devised a light tube that acts like a mirror and illuminates words on a page by distributing light from two light-emitting diodes (LEDs), one at each end of the device. Optical sensors then record a black-and-white image of the page. Flash memory—a miniature hard drive on a microchip—stores up to two megabytes of data even when the power is off or the batteries go dead. Planon System Solutions is also considering a full-color DocuPen with embedded wireless communication—just in case you need to send, say, a few pages of the bird-and-flower-bedecked Gutenberg Bible out into the ether.

Jon Luoma


: The Amazing 600-Year History of the Royal Collection of Wild and Ferocious Beasts Kept at the Tower of London

The Tower Menagerie

By Daniel Hahn, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, $26.95

The Tower of London—in its time a fortress, a royal residence, and a famous prison—is today a magnet for tourists, who marvel at the crown jewels and many suits of armor. During the first reign of King Henry VI (1422–1461), the main draw was quite different: a menagerie of lions for which the entrance fee was three halfpennies. If that sum was too steep, visitors could donate a dog or a cat—not as an inmate but as a feast for the beasts. Though unorthodox, such public admittance served an important purpose, argues Daniel Hahn. By making it easier to see live exotic animals, the menagerie functioned as a “prescientific laboratory” that made obsolete earlier sources of beastly lore: illustrated encyclopedias called bestiaries that described not only elephants, lions, and crocodiles but also dragons, griffins, unicorns, and talking pigs.

As Hahn relates in this drolly entertaining book, the Tower first became a home for ferocious beasts in 1235, when Frederick II, the Holy Roman emperor, gave England’s King Henry III three lions or leopards (no one seemed certain). Over the next six centuries, the menagerie grew to include owls, eagles, alligators, “tygers,” hyenas, and monkeys, as well as an elephant that came back with the Crusaders and a “pale bear” that fished for salmon in the Thames.

Some visitors did more than gawp. In the 1750s John Hunter, the Scottish “father of surgery,” did extensive studies on animal dentition, reproduction, and circulation by dissecting the bodies of tigers, lions, and rhinoceroses procured from the Tower’s collection. The squalid conditions in which the animals lived also helped spark an animal rights movement in the 19th century and provided the impetus for the opening, in 1828, of a garden in Regent’s Park devoted to “the advancement of Zoology and Animal Physiology,” whose goal would be to inspire scientists “rather than encouraging the ‘vulgar admiration’ of the public.” In 1835 the Tower menagerie closed. Its place had been taken by the still much admired London Zoo.

Josie Glausiusz


Courtesy of Rochester Museum and Science Center

Strasenburgh Planetarium

Rochester Museum and Science Center, 657 East Avenue, Rochester, New York; (585) 271-4320,

While many museums now boast computer-controlled video star shows with pulsing sound effects, the old-fashioned Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York, relies on a one-ton, 12-foot-long Zeiss star projector, installed in 1968 and still going strong. Like a double-headed, bug-eyed alien, the instrument carries a colander-like “star ball” at each end—one for the Southern Hemisphere, the other for the Northern—on which 16 star-field projectors are mounted. Each of these projectors is punctured by pinholes patterned after the positions of stars in the sky; a mercury vapor lamp encased by the colander beams light through the holes to create an accurate map of the stars on the ceiling of the dome. The result is an image of the night sky sharper than any film projector, no matter how large and sophisticated, can produce. Some 4,000 to 5,000 stars—including the North Star, or Polaris, the constellation Cassiopeia, the red supergiant Betelgeuse, and Sirius, the brightest star in the sky—are visible at one time, about double the number that a keen-sighted person could see under ideal conditions in the real sky. Even on a shoestring, the planetarium achieves something striking: It makes the universe seem quite neighborly.

William Speed Weed


Acquainted With the Night: Excursions Through the World After Dark

By Christopher Dewdney, Bloomsbury, $24.95

Acquainted with the Night: Excursions Through the World After Dark

Nine hundred million years ago, our planet was spinning so fast that an average night lasted only nine hours. A visibly larger moon (which was then closer to Earth) would appear to leap up from the horizon and sail through the stars as it crossed the night sky. Earth’s rotation has since slowed considerably, but we still zip around at a mighty fast clip. If you were standing in Los Angeles and were able to suddenly levitate and remain at a fixed point while Earth’s surface slid by, any friends out stargazing with you would seem to zoom into the distance at 869 miles per hour.

With such arresting imagery, Canadian poet Christopher Dewdney embarks on an exploration of life on Earth from twilight to the dawn chorus, embracing every nocturnal topic from the physics of the rarely spotted emerald flash of sunset in the Lesser Antilles to the physiology of insomnia and somnambulism. He ponders nighttime oddities of nature, such as the Texas blind salamander, a cave-dwelling semitranslucent amphibian that has no need for night vision—a trait that it apparently shares with about 40 percent of Americans, who, being bombarded with light pollution, never use theirs. Weaving history with mythology, cosmology, and biology, Dewdney has crafted a mosaic—if not a hodgepodge—of musings that will no doubt delight night owls as well as those who prefer to spend the dark hours snoring.

Laura Wright


1. THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

By Brian Greene, Alfred A. Knopf


By Bill Bryson, Broadway Books

3. GORGON: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History

By Peter Ward, Viking

4. MIND WIDE OPEN: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

By Steven Johnson, Scribner

5. THE GREAT INFLUENZA: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History

By John M. Barry, Viking

6. THE BIG YEAR: A Tale of Man, Nature, and a Fowl Obsession

By Mark Obmascik, Free Press

7. Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory

By Michael Christopher Carroll, William Morrow

8. MATH AND THE MONA LISA: The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci

By Bülent Atalay, Smithsonian Books

9. EVOLUTION: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory

By Edward J. Larson, Modern Library

10. QED: Beauty in Mathematical Proof

By Burkard Polster, Walker & Company

Source: Barnes & Noble Booksellers



By Bryony Lavery, Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway, New York City

Ralph Wantage, a serial killer who has raped and murdered seven young girls, shows barely a glimmer of remorse. Indeed, he seems incapable of expressing empathy for his victims. Is he evil, or is he mentally incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong? That’s the question that lies at the heart of Frozen, a Tony-winning Broadway drama by Bryony Lavery that skillfully melds science with the morality of violent crime.

Courtey of Joan Marcus

Brian F. O’Byrne, seated beside Laila Robbins (Dr. Gottmundsdottir) bagged a Tony for his searing portrayal of killer Ralph Wantage.

Wantage, played masterfully by Brían F. O’Byrne, has come under the scrutiny of psychiatrist Agnetha Gottmundsdottir (Laila Robins), an expert in “the Arctic frozen sea that is the criminal brain.” Her data, based on brain scans and other scientific tests, suggest that Wantage and other violent criminals may be suffering from brain damage incurred during the course of severe childhood abuse. The fictional doctor’s research closely resembles real-life studies, by Yale University psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis, of dozens of death-row inmates, most of whom suffered from brain dysfunction and showed signs of psychosis.

Like Lewis, Gottmundsdottir administers simple reflex tests to check her subjects for signs of abnormal brain function. For example, she discovers that Wantage cannot learn to stop flinching when tapped on the bridge of the nose. This inability, she says, is one indication of injury to the brain’s frontal lobes, our judgment and impulse-modulating centers. Because of the resulting faulty wiring, she concludes, her subjects “are literally lacking some brain organization that allows them to make strong connections to other human beings.”

Fair enough, but does this absolve them of guilt for their crimes? After all, most brain-damaged people do not become killers. But if such criminals are brain damaged, shouldn’t they be spared execution? That may be the view of Nancy (Swoosie Kurtz, in a deeply affecting performance), who after 20 years of rage somewhat implausibly decides to forgive Wantage for the murder of her adored 10-year-old daughter, Rhona. While Frozen provides no simple answers on how to cope with vicious criminals, it does provoke us to think of their acts as crimes of illness rather than of evil.

Maia Weinstock


God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory

Niall Shanks

Oxford University Press, $29.95

Intelligent design, which posits that the universe and its inhabitants are so complex that a creator must have conceived them, is making inroads into many school curricula. Shanks, who teaches evolutionary biology at East Tennessee State University, debunks the theory by marshaling detailed evidence to prove that it is simply “old [creationist] wine in new designer-label bottles.”

Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that shaped the American Frontier

Jeffrey A. Lockwood

Basic Books, $25

In the 19th century, locust swarms 10 billion strong blackened the skies across the United States, turning crops into a carpet of crunchy black goo. Then they vanished. Lockwood, of the University of Wyoming, concludes that settlers’ changing land use destroyed the locusts’ breeding grounds and so drove them away.

Maia Weinstock


Courtesy of Exofficio

Buzz Off Insect Repellent Apparel

Buzz Off Insect Shield LLC

Clothes can be ordered from or

On a recent warm morning, my friend Jack, a keen bird-watcher, gave me the chance to test what could be a world-changing technological breakthrough: a pair of socks. Not just socks, in fact, but also trousers, a shirt, and a hat, all made of Buzz Off, a pesticide-permeated fabric designed to protect the wearer from mosquitoes, ticks, and other pests. While I clad myself in Buzz Off from toe to head, Jack tucked his plain cotton pants into his untreated socks. Then we both charged into a grassy old New Jersey orchard on the trail of a warbling vireo. Five minutes later, Jack was frantically pulling three dozen ticks (about two-thirds of them the tiny nymphs that carry Lyme disease) off his clothing. My own tick burden was zero.

Developed by scientists in North Carolina, Buzz Off fabric is impregnated with permethrin, a synthetic insecticide related to a repellent found in chrysanthemums. Cotton farmers spray permethrin on boll weevils, but in this case the pesticide is bonded tightly to fibers in a patent-pending process, which lab tests have shown will repel insects through 25 washings. While there is evidence that permethrin is carcinogenic to mice, the Environmental Protection Agency rates Buzz Off clothing as safe even for small children to wear. One group has already reaped Buzz Off’s benefits. At the United States Military Academy at West Point, the incidence of Lyme disease dropped from 10 cases to zero one year after cadets switched to field uniforms made from the fabric.

Jon Luoma

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2023 Kalmbach Media Co.