The Science of Sustainability

Book Review: Animal Wise – The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures

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book cover of animal wise

Animal Wise: The thoughts and emotions of our fellow creatures. Virginia Morell; Crown: 2013

If you're not a comparative psychologist or student of animal behavior, chances are you didn't know that cows have regional accents or that sheep don’t forget a face. I'd also wager that you never heard that fish feel pain or that moths remember life as a caterpillar.

These are just a few of the surprising mental feats our “lesser” animal relatives can manage, science journalist Virginia Morell tells us in her moving and entertaining new book, “Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures.”

Though an appreciation of the rich inner lives of our fellow creatures dates back at least to Aristotle, suggestions that animals could feel or think once met indignant resistance from theologians and philosophers who saw humans as the anointed ruler of a divinely created hierarchy of nature. Indignation turned to outrage when Charles Darwin recast humans not as the crown of creation but as an organism like any other, evolving in response to its ever-changing environment.

It’s not surprising that Darwin, who documented physical similarities across species who live in similar environments, would think that such pressures gave rise to a continuity of mind across species as well. Any cognitive differences between humans and other animals are of degree, not kind, he argued in the “Descent of Man.” Furthermore, he wrote, “the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.”

american crow

Crows can use tools, challenging us to rethink the boundaries of animal cognition. (Photo: Walter Siegmund)

As Morell shows us, the need to elevate ourselves above nature runs deep. By the 1920s, the rise of behaviorists—psychologists who believed that science could investigate only observable behaviors—again demoted animals to mere stimulus-response robots incapable of anything approaching the human capacity for empathy, learning or intelligence. Some psychologists still cling to this view of animal automatons.

Try telling any dog or cat lover that her cherished companion doesn’t have a personality or care whether she lives or dies. I’ll never forget how our Airedale, Amanda, would let loose in a fit of hysterical howls as she flung herself into my arms every time I came home from college break. And I still miss the Russian blue who magically appeared purring at my feet whenever I was feeling down.

Such anecdotes are simply that, of course. But just because scientists don’t know how to study animal emotions doesn’t mean animals don’t experience them. And given how often a study knocks yet another “uniquely” human trait off its pedestal, it may be just a matter of time before someone figures out how to study emotions in animals too.

It is the boundaries of animal cognition that interest Morell, a frequent contributor to National Geographic and Science. She takes a journalist’s approach to the question of animal minds, but shows a deep compassion and empathy for her subjects, which include species separated by some 100 million years of evolution.

african elephant

Elephants, massacred by the thousands in Africa for the ivory in their tusks, experience grief and something akin to post-traumatic stress syndrome when they lose a family member. This male was photographed in Gabon, which conservationists consider ground zero for elephant massacre. (Photo: Peter H. Wrege)

Without evolution as a guide, the cognitive skills of Homo sapiens do not make sense biologically, Morell writes about animal physiologist Donald Griffin’s quest to bring science to the study of animal minds in the mid-1970s. Human cognition did not spring de novo from the hand of a divine creator, lingering protestations to the contrary. What, then, Morell asks, are the biological roots and evolutionary processes that gave rise to the cognitive capacities we share with our animal kin?

To find out, she travels the globe to visit researchers in their labs and in the field as they search for the evolutionary roots of cognition. In the process, she shows us not just the remarkable mental skills of “nonhuman” animals, but the nature of science and how we know what we know.

We learn about ant “teachers” that look, under a magnifying glass, like “Elizabethan actors or courtiers fashionably dressed in pantaloons and fancy hats” after Nigel Franks, an English behavioral ecologist, and his students painstakingly paint each one with a unique colored pattern. The work, though excruciating, helps reveal how and why each ant responds to a challenge—in this case, the destruction of the colony’s nest. The experiments, Morell reports, suggest that ants “the size of hyphens” make decisions when confronted with challenges and appear to teach their comrades to follow their lead.

We meet a German neuroscientist named Stefan Schuster who found the perfect research subject by happy accident—a supplier mistakenly sent him a big aquarium, which he filled with archerfish “just for fun.” Three years in, Schuster realized the fish could help him study how animals with small brains can make complex decisions. Archerfish, “the sharpshooters of the piscine world,” fire streams of water at prey, usually insects, on branches or leaves above the surface then race to nab them once dislodged. By analyzing videotapes of archerfish squirting and grabbing prey under a variety of conditions, Schuster concluded that the fish learn how to shoot new and difficult targets by watching a skilled colleague.

Morell goes on to introduce us to the birds that forced scientists to rethink the meaning of bird-brained (including Betty, the tool-using crow), rats that “laugh” when tickled, elephants that experience post-traumatic stress after losing their matriarch, dolphins that cooperate to help another in distress and chimps whose sophisticated social intelligence forces us to consider our own failures.

She ends, fittingly, with the latest studies of our most constant companion, the dog, a species Darwin considered closer to humans than to the wolves they descended from. The similarities between dogs and human are so striking that one group of scientists decided that studying the transition from wolf to dog would say more about the evolution of the human mind than studying the differences between chimpanzees and humans. Dogs, Morell writes, were Darwin’s “prime example of how animals, other than humans, experience ‘pleasure and pain, happiness and memory.’ ”

Morell obliterates the lines that might separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom by relating trailblazing discoveries of the emotional and intellectual lives of animals. In the process, she challenges us to rethink our ethical obligations to the creatures who share our world. Morell notes that even some of the scientists studying animal cognition wanted to know how she would address the question of what sets us apart from other animals. “That question was not the point of the book,” she told them.

“Given that we now know that we live in a world of sentient beings, not one of stimulus-response machines," Morell writes, "we need to ask: ‘How should we treat these other emotional, thinking creatures?' ”

For decades, critics of those advocating for the compassionate treatment of animals have argued there’s no evidence to support their claims. As Morell makes clear, that argument no longer stands.

The question, now, is: what are we going to do about it?

***

Hear Virginia Morell talk about Animal Wise at Pegasus Books, 2349 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, March 14 at 7:30 p.m.

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Liza Gross

About the Author ()

Liza Gross, a freelance science writer and senior editor at the biomedical journal PLOS Biology, channeled an early love of wildlife into a lifelong exploration of the numerous ways diverse species, including humans, interact in the natural world. She writes mostly about wildlife, conservation, and environmental health. Her stories reflect a deep curiosity about natural and social interactions and often highlight evolutionary relationships that remind humans of their place in, and responsibility to conserve, nature. Her article "Don't Jump!" published in Slate, won an ASJA award in the op-ed category. She's a visiting scholar at NYU, a 2013 recipient of NYU Reporting Award funding and a Dennis Hunt health journalism fellow. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.