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Book Review: Tamed & Untamed

By (October 17, 2017) No Comment

Tamed & Untamed:

Close Encounters of the Animal Kind

by Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Chelsea Green, 2017

Mark Rowlands, in a recent TLS review of G. A. Bradshaw’s excellent Carnivore Minds, makes a quick but powerful allusion to “a monstrous historical lie, beginning with Descartes in the seventeenth century and continuing until the late twentieth, that insisted animals were nothing more than stimulus-response machines.” That lie has held sway since a good deal earlier than Descartes, although all along there have been voices of dissent: not just appreciation societies but everyday observers – no farmer or rancher in human history would ever think cows or horses (or wolves) are mere mindless automatons.

But in the last twenty or thirty years, the dissenting voice has become the consensus, as a new book, Tamed & Untamed, makes clear. It’s a slim collection of brief reflections on animals, co-written by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of the bestselling The Hidden Life of Dogs, and Sy Montgomery, author of 2015’s superb The Soul of an Octopus, and it takes as its guiding premise not only Thomas’ contention (offered specifically when dealing with slugs, but universally applicable) that “any life-form is fascinating if you watch it long enough,” but also by Charles Darwin himself, as Montgomery points out in a little essay on bees:

“Even insects express anger, terror, jealousy, and love,” Charles Darwin wrote in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. But in the ensuing 150 years, his views on emotion fell so out of favor that few scientists even tried to look for thinking or feeling in tiny, invertebrate animals – until now.

In quick, anecdotal chapters on snails, bears, hawks, dogs, cats, bats, and a host of other familiar species, the two alternate writing chores and serve up hint after hint of entire civilizations now coming into the view of recently-unblinkered science. Revolution is not the book’s aim – it’s a more modest enterprise entirely, clearly intended to provoke thought and instill a little wonder rather than delve into the detailed natural histories of any of the species it discusses. And always it comes back to the gentle dispelling of that monstrous historical lie; what Thomas writes about amphibians can serve as the final warning on all the folks assembled here:

The only amphibians we now know are the salamander and frog types (toads are frogs), and we think of them as nothing much, not realizing that tiny though they are, their brains are fully functional, with consciousness, memory, thoughts, and even emotions. In short, their brains are more or less like ours except specialized for different problems and focus in different directions.