Monday, October 12, 2015

Beyond Words by Carl Safina

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
Carl Safina
Henry Holt, 2015
480pp.

Safina's book gave me a problem when I tried to rate it for Amazon: there's nothing above five stars. This is, if not quite a flawless book, one that deserves the topmost ranking as a momentous, world-changing work with the impact of Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction.
To boil Safina (author of such seminal works as Song for the Blue Ocean) down to one line, this book argues that the characteristics we think of as "human," like altruism, complex thought, and love that goes beyond the sexual urge, are more differences in degree than in kind from the "lower" animals who have "different but overlapping" gifts bestowed by evolution and genetics. He discusses mainly three species: elephants, orcas, and wolves, although there are plenty of anecdotes and studies thrown in about other species, and he even ponders the behavior of animals like ducks that we hardly think of as intelligent.  All these animals, he writes, are "who" rather than "what:" while they may not pass the famous mirror test, which he casts doubt on, they have an understanding that they are individuals.  He speculates that this really goes all the way down the animal kingdom in some form: even an ant needs some understanding of when its behavior is like or or unlike the other ants' and whether to change it to accomplish a task.  
Readers will be caught up in the animals' stories: the complex leadership and deep empathy of elephants; the the efforts of wolves to find their place in a world of fissioning/fusioning packs and families where intelligence is often more important than strength; the ability of orcas to understand not only each other but humans in ways that sometimes seem downright spooky.  All these species, and many others, display traits that force us to think about who they are and how we treat them. 
I had one misgiving: while we have extensive field observations of all three main species, they are not continual observations: we don't see everything they do, especially with orcas. Safina recognizes this on page 373, where he talks about dolphin rescues and agrees with the need for caution. I followed up and asked the author online if it was appropriate to assign a behavior trait to a species based on limited anecdotes.  He responded that it depended on the strength of the anecdotes: we had, he cited, two pretty convincing examples of orcas doing something startling (nudging lost dogs back to shore instead of eating them), and thus his book argues we can ascribe that behavior to them, at least under some circumstances.  
There is still a lot of room for further learning and understanding, and even the observations and conclusions of leading scientists may not be the last word (as, Safina shows, great minds of the recent past often fell into error).  While I'm admittedly an amateur here, I wondered about the orca researcher who, seeing captive orcas fascinated with photos in books shown to them, felt that they understood the abstract idea that these are tiny representations of orcas.  Is that accurate, or were they doing something a little less amazing, recognizing the orca silhouettes as if these were orcas far away? We don't have the tools to ask the orcas those questions yet. But the human researchers Safina compellingly profiles are learning more all the time about how to measure an animal's intelligence (which may have little to do with the human definition of same), understand their differing personalities, and get a glimpse of what's going on as they observe and react to their world. 
Safina opens his book by quoting Henry Beston's words to the effect that other animals, "...are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations. caught with ourselves in the net of life and time..." A lot of authors quote this: Safina, in this marvelous book, brings it home as a fundamental truth in a way that will change the reader forever.


2 comments:

Mimi Wolske said...

What a good review; sparked intrigue and I'm checking out this book a little more.

Ashleen Philipps said...

i like this book. i want to read it


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