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Book Review: Beyond Words

By (July 18, 2015) No Comment

Beyond Words:beyond words

What Animals Think and Feel

by Carl Safina

Henry Holt, 2015

“So far,” writes Carl Safina in his new book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,

some scientists grant theory-of-mind ability – basically, understanding that another can have thoughts and motives that differ from yours – to apes and dolphins. A few allow elephants and crows. Occasional researchers have admitted dogs. But many continue to insist that theory of mind is “uniquely human.” Even while I was writing this, science journalist Katherine Harmon wrote, “In most animal species, scientists have failed to see even a glimmer of evidence.”

“Not a glimmer?” he writes in astonished rejoinder. “It’s blinding. People who don’t see the evidence aren’t paying attention.”

Beyond Words is essentially one long such rejoinder, a new and powerful salvo in the ongoing movement to broaden the typical human conception of what constitutes both intelligence and emotional validity in other species – perhaps in all other species. It will help all but the most hardened species-bigots to at the very least start paying attention.

In fact, it doesn’t go far enough. In strapping on his lance and buckler for “theory-of-mind,” Safina grants it an ideological supremacy it in no way warrants. At its base, “theory-of-mind” is a function not of intelligence but of paranoia – not merely “understanding” that another can have thoughts and motives different from yours but worrying about what those thoughts and motives might be, worrying to a greater and more opportunistic, manipulative way than the simple contests of food-gathering and mating necessitate. And paranoia is seated in the prefrontal cortex, an area of exaggerated size and neurological complexity in humans; which is to say, when humans hold “theory-of-mind”-style awareness up as a yardstick of intelligence, they’re being every bit as unjust as would a 10-hour-a-day video gamer who judged your intelligence by how wide and spatulate your thumbs are. It’s a rigged standard. It certainly doesn’t contemplate that there may be as many different kinds of “intelligence” as there are animal species with brains (or even without – certainly there are many, many varieties of bacteria that seem very capable of thinking on their, erm, feet).

But it’s a step in the right direction, especially in that it puts awareness forward of far more specifically human traits like those most prized in earlier generations of extraspecies intelligence testing. In assessing the intricacies of how a wide variety of those non-human species understand and probe the world and living things around them, Safina surveys a wide swath of the animal kingdom here, from cephalopods to elephants to canines to that recently galvanizing species, the killer whale:

Feared in our own time by even the sea’s greatest whales, killer whales exert power without peer since dinosaurs signed out, sixty-five million years ago. But the killer’s subtle, sensitive side makes a hunter with complex notes that T. rex could never have hoped to emulate: intelligent, maternal, long-lived, cooperative, intensely social, devoted to family. They are, like us, warm-blooded milk-makers, mammals whose personalities are really not much different from ours. They’re just a lot bigger. And notably less violent. The brains – also a lot bigger – manage the tasks of family, geography, social networking, an the minute analysis of sound.

Throughout Beyond Words, Safina interviews experts on many of the species he discusses, and he handles the latest science of animal cognition with deft accessibility. His goal in these pages is clearly not just to investigate the nature of the inner lives of nonhumans but also to urge – in the prettiest prose he can muster – that those inner lives share a great deal more in common with humans than science, always shying away from the slur of anthropomorphism, has generally been willing to allow. His chapters are full of well-attested anecdotes of animals behaving with compassion, interest, self-amusement, and even love, an emotion Safina at once links to and elevates from the raw needs of evolution:

In one sense, love is a name for a feeling that evolution uses to trick us into performing risky, costly behaviors such as child rearing and the defense of our mates and children. A purely rational calculation of our own welfare would make us avoid such risk and expense. Love helps commit us to them. The capacity for love evolved because emotional bonding and parental care increase reproduction. That doesn’t mean love is not profound. It only means that love grows from a deep tangle of roots. And as you know, it can feel that way.

“If cruelty and destructiveness are bad, humans are by a wide margin the worst species ever to infest this planet,” he writes. “If compassion and creativity are good, humans are by a wide margin the finest. But we are neither simply good nor bad; we are all these things together, and imperfectly so. The question for all is: Which way is our balance trending?” Books predicting the barren extinction-level wastes of the new age, the anthropocene, imply an answer to that question, an answer the eternal optimist Safina implicitly rejects. We might fear that he’s kidding himself, but we can hope not.

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