Emmanuelle Pouydebat: “Humans do not have a monopoly on intelligence”

Emmanuelle Pouydebat: “Humans do not have a monopoly on intelligence”

Between two scientific publications, why did you launch into an intimate story with “My most beautiful animal encounters”?

At 50, it was time for me to make a declaration of love to those who have supported me throughout my life. I could have started this work with the animals to which I have devoted my research by studying their behavior for more than twenty-five years.

But I first wanted to express all my gratitude to the paleontologist Yves Coppens, who died on June 22, 2022. This figure corresponds to the image I have of the true scientist: always ready to support you even if you contradict him. In his own way, he was a funny animal!

What characterized him?

His talent as an unparalleled storyteller! Many people of my generation took up a career as a scientist after seeing him on television when he came to present Lucy (an Australopithecus fossil found in 1974, during excavations in Ethiopia, Editor’s note).

I fell in love at first sight as he told with simplicity and poetry the history of this arboreal species, a cousin of humans, which dates back 3.18 million years.

Have other events inspired your vocation?

From my childhood, I benefited from a conducive environment. Although I grew up in an HLM in Gentilly (Valde-Marne), I always had animals around me: hamsters, parakeets, a Japanese nightingale, a rabbit, a cat, a dog… which brought back the Gigi house, my mother, a teacher at the time. She also passed on her passion for animals to me through the books she gave me.

A hereditary virus, it seems…

Indeed, the writing of this book brought back family anecdotes: my aunt Jeannette with her missions to rescue critters of all kinds or even grandfather Émile and his rat.

During the First World War, my grandfather’s mission was to carry messages of peace between the French and German trenches.

All these stories populated the imagination of the lonely little girl that I was. Without forgetting the holidays in Touraine with Geneviève, my maternal grandmother. I spent the afternoons in the garden observing insects. I then took a liking to ladybugs, dragonflies, spiders.

You also mention in your book the importance of your brother Anthony…

Yes, I was 11 when he was born. Seeing all his progress as he grew fascinated me. I will remember his three little steps towards me all my life: he was 9 months old! And the first time he spoke, my little brother also fed my insatiable scientific curiosity.

As an adult, what subject did this curiosity lead you to?

I wanted to demonstrate that the use of a tool was not a human invention. Which meant questioning everything I had learned during my studies, whether first in anthropology, then in evolutionary biology. My thesis was going to be disturbing, but I had the intuition that we had underestimated the abilities of animals. I therefore began to study the manual and cognitive capacities of a species genetically close to humans: the great apes.

And what did you discover?

Despite having very short thumbs, these primates are capable of elaborate manipulations to catch food. While observing them, I was not at the end of my surprises: they demonstrate maternal instinct, empathy…

I found these skills by continuing my research among other species as diverse as invertebrates, amphibians, birds, fish, mammals… Everyone found ways to make and use tools, transport them in order to to feed yourself, protect yourself, adapt to an environment. Humans therefore do not have a monopoly on intelligence or emotions.

What lesson do you learn from this?

That you have to know how to stay humble. Life has appeared for more than four billion years and we humans have been on earth for six million years: a drop in the bucket on the scale of evolution! If you assume you know everything, you’ll miss a lot. The older I get, the more I realize that I don’t know anything! Observe, always and again, take notes and stay in a frame of mind, ready to discover everything, to marvel. In short, if you are certain, it’s ruined!

What difference do you see between human intelligence and animal intelligence?

We are capable of sending people into space, but we encounter difficulties in collectively solving problems in order to fight against global warming for example, even though we are slowly destroying the planet. In animals, cooperation is preferred to selfish behavior. What’s more, in the field of navigation or spatial memory, ants, chimpanzees and rats do better than us. No species should be neglected, especially since some contribute to human innovations.


The animal kingdom is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. In the field of transport, we no longer count the contribution of birds and insects to design faster, more economical vehicles.

In medicine, we are interested in certain species which contain molecules capable of treating us. Using the model of termite mounds and their ventilation system, architects have designed more ecological buildings. I am also thinking of the wings of morpho butterflies which resist high temperatures and allow us to imagine more resistant solar panels.

In industry, the elephant trunk could serve as a model for a new type of robotic arm. We must still use nature and not use ourselves in nature. This implies that we must protect her in return.

In your research, you have also highlighted emotions in animals. Should we review our behavior?

Given our current knowledge, we can no longer tolerate the animal suffering brought to light by activist associations. I discovered the hellish living conditions of intensive farms. It is time for the laws to evolve.

A reflection must also be carried out in the laboratories. When do we have the right to sacrifice an animal? This is a real ethical question, always subject to debate within the scientific community.

As for our pets, education work is necessary to combat abandonment. I do not claim to be a model of virtue, but there are essential daily tasks to carry out so that an animal is well treated. Yes, you have to take care of it, yes you have to ask for it, take into account its hygiene, feed it, clean it, make sure it is well. And yes, it has a cost!

What about the zoos with which you work?

In those that I am used to frequenting such as the Vallée aux Monkeys, the Beauval Zoo, the menagerie of the National Museum of Natural History, or the Paris Zoological Park, I can only rejoice at the strong involvement teams for the well-being of species in captivity. These establishments contribute to scientific research.

The field of science remains a predominantly male environment. What advice would you give to young women who would like to follow in your footsteps?

From middle school, I was often told that I did not have the resources to become a researcher, that I would not have the level, that I was less experienced, even though I have always worked enormously. It was so unfair!

I preferred to turn a deaf ear to sentences that hurt in order to listen to my heart and move forward by cultivating this capacity for wonder at the diversity of life.

Today, I feel useful to be able to share it with the general public during conferences or interventions in schools. Finally I realized my childhood dream. And I still have trouble understanding its importance!

What would be your adult dream?

I would like that by passing on my experience young people will have more dreams than those offered to them in these troubled times.

The biography of Emmanuelle Pouydebat

May 22, 1973. Birth in Paris. She then grew up in Gentilly (Val-de-Marne). His mother is a teacher, his father a computer scientist.

2001. Winner of the Vocation Prize (Macel-Bleustein-Blanchet Foundation). Meet one of the members of the jury, the anthropologist Yves Coppens. He will be his thesis director.

2004. PhD devoted to manipulation and tool use abilities in primates.

2017. Research director at the CNRS, specializing in animal behavior and performance, attached to the National Museum of Natural History. She published her first book: Animal intelligence, brains of birds and memory of elephants, (Ed. Odile Jacob).

2021. Silver medalist at the CNRS and designated Knight of the Legion of Honor by the Ministry of Ecological Transition.

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