Thursday, August 6, 2015

1964. Book Review: Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

By Gregory Cowles, The New York Times, August 3, 2015

Given the subtitle of Carl Safina’s fascinating and expansive new book, “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,” it’s no surprise that Dr. Safina frequently discusses animal cognition.

The surprise is that he also talks about animal precognition. (Read an excerpt.)

“How do we explain certain remarkable stories about elephant communication?” he asks at one point, noting that a conservationist who has worked with the animals for decades flatly believes in pachyderm telepathy. The conservationist says she has seen free-living elephants in Kenya show up at a nearby reserve just before rescued orphans were scheduled to arrive, ready to meet and greet.

“I filed her claim in my mind’s ‘unlikely stories’ bin,” Dr. Safina acknowledges. “But that bin gets cluttered; there are many ‘unlikely’ stories about elephants.”

And not just elephants: In a chapter cheekily titled “Woo-Woo,” he entertains similar ideas about the psychic abilities of killer whales and other members of the dolphin family.

Dr. Safina, a marine conservationist and professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island, is clearly unafraid to challenge scientific orthodoxy. He accepts as a given that animals are capable of thought and emotion, a proposition that, as he notes impatiently and not a little defensively, is far from settled among animal behaviorists.

“Why do researchers judge the mental performance of other animals against a standard that humans could not possibly reach?” he asks. “You have to deeply deny the evidence to conclude that humans alone are conscious, feeling beings.”

This renegade spirit is a source of the book’s great charm, the pepper in its woo-woo sauce. Dr. Safina takes frequent droll pleasure in puncturing claims to human exceptionalism.
“Maybe more than anything, what ‘makes us human’ is our ability to generate wacky ideas,” he writes. And at another point: “There is in nature an overriding sanity and often, in humankind, an undermining insanity. We, among all animals, are most frequently irrational, distortional, delusional, worried.”

Dr. Safina is a terrific writer, majestic and puckish in equal measure, with a contagious enthusiasm for the complex social lives of the animals he’s observing — in this book, chiefly elephants, wolves and killer whales. If he pulls a bit of bait and switch, for long stretches abandoning his supposed theme of animal consciousness to focus instead on simple appreciation and advocacy, it’s hard to object because he brings his subjects so vividly to life.

Here he is, for instance, describing killer whales as they forage for salmon off Vancouver Island in British Columbia: “Several whales bow their backs and dive steeply. Below, the fish have their attention. A couple of other whales slice rapidly through the surface, quickly switching directions.”
“The closest whale, right behind us, is L-92. This big one over here with the high, wavy dorsal fin is K-25. He begins a series of high-arcing lunges, with lots of splashing and commotion. He’s after one large, isolated fish. He dives away. When he suddenly bursts through the surface, his mass and momentum startle me wide-eyed.”

The effect — and surely the intention — of such lively, physical description is to make Dr. Safina’s readers feel as strong a connection to these animals as he does. Again and again he follows the same formula, familiar from nature documentaries: Draw close to the animals, explain their habits and family structures and personalities until we perceive them as individual characters, then detail the ways human culture is destroying their way of life.

For elephants, that means ivory poaching; for wolves, the threat of hunters and trappers; for killer whales, everything from overfishing to underwater military explosions to the continued practice, in some places, of capturing young whales for use in aquarium shows.

The strategy of making us see animals as individuals is undeniably effective, as anybody who has followed the story of Cecil the lion can attest. And Dr. Safina draws out haunting resonances between animal lives and our own. “What I had not imagined,” he writes of a Yellowstone wolf pack that fractured after hunters killed its alpha member, “was the politics involved, the personalities, the vendettas and coalitions, the family turmoil following tragedy, the loyalties and disloyalties.” Dr. Safina describes the drama as “all too human.”

In the same section, he describes a legendary wolf from Yellowstone, the “superwolf” known by his tracking number 21, who never lost a fight and never killed an opponent.
“Can a wolf be magnanimous?” Dr. Safina asks. “And if so, why?”

But of course the nobility of animals is all a matter of perspective: Ask harbor seals how they feel about killer whales. And as persuasive as Dr. Safina is in calling for humans to tread more humanely on the earth — his desire for ecological harmony sometimes carries pleasing echoes of the poet Gary Snyder — “Beyond Words” remains most interesting when it focuses on the core question of nonhuman consciousness.

That question also leads him to the most scientifically grounded sections of the book, discussing for example the chemical and neurological bases of emotions: “Oxytocin drives bonding,” he reminds readers, “and it makes elephants and many other species act social or sexual. Block the hormone; many mammals and birds lose interest in socializing, pairing, nesting and contact.” Elsewhere he writes about brain size relative to body size, and the role of neuron density in determining mental dexterity.

Throughout, he demonstrates a keen grasp of the scientific literature across a range of disciplines and a refreshing skepticism about the terms of debate. “Only humans have human minds,” he concedes. “But believing that only humans have minds is like believing that because only humans have human skeletons, only humans have skeletons.”

Finally, though, you get the feeling that for Dr. Safina, human consciousness is at least as pressing a concern as animal consciousness, and possibly more in doubt. “The work,” he writes near the end of this captivating book, “is beautiful, and urgent, an almost holy quest for deeper intimacy. Not just with the whales. With the world.”

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