Culture is Home: Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace

Guest book review by Gene Helfman.

MacArthur Fellow Carl Safina established himself among the legion of environmental journalists with his first book, the award-winning Song for the Blue Ocean. In Song, he detailed the causes of and solutions to declining fish populations, especially those overharvested in commercial fisheries. In (also award-winning) Eye of the Albatross, he lamented the decimation of albatross populations, where incidental by-catch in commercial fisheries – or as Safina more forcefully called it by-kill – has pushed several species to the edge of extinction. He also coined the now-popular and poignant term, albatrocities.

In subsequent books and now his most recent, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, Safina continues to excel, via detailed description, elegant turns of phrase, and rich prose. Safina leads us to appreciate just how miraculous and complex are the lives of non-human beings. In Becoming Wild, he focuses on three species – sperm whales, Scarlet Macaws, and chimpanzees – and their relatives and ecologically similar species (orcas, humpback whales, elephants; other parrots, corvids, songbirds; bonobos, gorillas). In each, he follows his established practice of conducting meticulous background research and embedding himself in the animal’s habitat with the organisms’ foremost researchers. Safina thus gains priceless insight into the biology of the animals and the psyche of dedicated field workers. As a reader, we become intimately familiar with both, accessing decades of fact, thought, opinion, and most importantly, passion for the animal.

Certain themes recur in each section. First and unquestionably foremost is the importance of culture in the lives of these animals, how social transmission of behavioral traditions permeates their existence, including what and what not to eat; where to find it; how to capture, access, or process it; what songs to sing and vocalizations to use; where and when to migrate; whom to seek out and whom to avoid. Safina details how parents and other group members actively or passively teach younger generations how to live, i.e., how to become wild (and why attempts at releasing captive animals that lack these critical learning opportunities seldom succeed). 

Each section also focuses on a sub-theme. In sperm whales, it’s raising families, including how extended family members rush to the aid of threatened youngsters. In macaws, it’s creating beauty, where Safina proposes the intriguing hypothesis that non-human beings evolve and appreciate beauty in much the same way our species seeks and absorbs the beautiful, whether it’s sexually-selected colors and body parts, or naturally occurring hues and structures. In chimpanzees – where cultural selection has produced such strong differences that we might recognize new species – it’s achieving peace and the constant physical and mental abuse male chimpanzees foist on competitors (and how female-dominated chimp societies tend to experience less internecine mayhem).

Underlying all three sections, of both focal species and relatives, is the issue of declining populations and the vital need to conserve them through elimination of direct and indirect impacts. Causes include habitat loss in all cases, entanglement in nets driving down sperm whales, capture for the pet trade decimating macaws, and bush meat hunting and human-chimp conflict over land fracturing chimpanzee societies. Safina once again convinces us that by understanding the complex social systems of these animals, systems that have strong parallels in our own societies, we can empathize sufficiently to allow them to sustain the fascinating and rich lives they have evolved. 

Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace
by Carl Safina 

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