Beyond Words: The more we study animals, the smarter they get


In Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, Carl Safina sets out on a global journey to listen to and understand animals on their terms and not ours. By the end of this book, I can guarantee that readers will come away with a greater appreciation for the self-awareness, intelligence, and empathy of the animals we share this planet with.

The bulk of the book is devoted to studying African elephants, North American wolves, and Pacific Northwest orcas (killer whales). Safina does an excellent job of describing what he sees and learns as he travels with naturalists who have dedicated their lives to understanding these species.

We watch elephants caring for their young, playing, and mourning (something that happens all too often due to poachers). The elephants are named, and researchers can identify them them by sight — and we get a sense of the life histories of many of these elephants, histories that are no less complex and challenging than any human animal. We follow wolf watchers in Yellowstone, and while the wolves may be given numbers and not names, we learn their life histories in similar detail — histories that sadly include equally tragic encounters with humans.

I was struck by the similarities of risks both wolves and elephants face when they venture beyond human-drawn boundaries. In Africa, so long as elephants stay within national parks, they enjoy a greater degree of security; when they wander out of the parks, they run a gantlet of dangers. So too do the wolves who step outside the boundaries of Yellowstone. Hunters have gone so far as to use radio devices to track the electronic collars placed on wolves by researchers to know when wolves have crossed outside park boundaries (you can read Beckie Elgin’s many reviews of  wolf literature to grasp the full scope of the war being waged on wolves).

And then we meet the orcas in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands. While I was aware that orcas have widely divergent diets — the residents of the San Juan Islands prefer salmon, while the transients who pass through prefer seals — I did not know that are eight distinct species of orca around the world, which scientists have not yet made official. We know so little yet about these animals. We do know that there is no documented case of an orca in the wild killing a human (only examples of orcas in captivity doing so). Orcas are members of the dolphin family, and the stories of kindness that this family have exhibited towards humans over the years are remarkable — leading lost swimmers and boaters  to safety, protecting humans from sharks, rescuing a drowning woman. One may argue that these actions are merely instinctual, but as the evidence mounts I’m not sure that argument holds any weight.

Safina does not limit himself to a few species of animal. He digresses into stories about dogs, bonobos, ravens, tortoises, even worms. Stories that illustrate again and again that the animal world is far more intelligent and communicative that we have been led to believe (and perhaps want to believe). Darwin made the case long ago for the intelligence of non-human animals.

Safina does not hesitate to take scientists to task for the great efforts they have exerted to avoid the scientific “third rail” of anthropomorphism. Safina points out that scientists often try to apply measures of intelligence that simply don’t make sense. The “mirror test” is one such measurement. (I’d like to think my cat has self awareness, even though he has yet to show any signs of recognizing himself in a mirror.)

As an aside, a hundred years ago scientists argued that vivisection on live animals was perfectly reasonable because animals were “machine-like” and felt no pain. I know we’ve come a long way since then, but we still have a long ways to go.

Safina writes that just because an animal can’t talk doesn’t mean it can’t communicate. And if we judge animals by the standards we set, we miss the point. Animals don’t need to measure up to our standards of intelligence — only their standards.

This is an important book and one that raises tough questions about not only how society views animals but how we treat animals — all animals. I would have liked to see Safina include a “what you can do” chapter to the book with actions we all can take. It’s hard to walk away from this book and not wonder why we still eat animals. Safina does not draw this connection — and I’m clearly biased in this regard — but this is really the only conclusion we can draw. Animals evolve. Humans evolve. It’s time humans evolve to a more equitable and respectful relationship with all animals. They’ve suffered us long enough.

I’ll leave you with this quote:

If cruelty and destructiveness are bad, humans are by a wide margin the worst species ever to infest this planet. 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?

If more people read this book — and, more important, take action — we will begin trending in the right direction.

Beyond Words
By Carl Safina
Henry Holt & Co.


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