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Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by…
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Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

by Carl Safina

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3091659,410 (4.38)3
"Weaving decades of field observations with exciting new discoveries about the brain, Carl Safina's landmark book offers an intimate view of animal behavior to challenge the fixed boundary between humans and nonhuman animals. In Beyond Words, readers travel to Amboseli National Park in the threatened landscape of Kenya and witness struggling elephant families work out how to survive poaching and drought, then to Yellowstone National Park to observe wolves sort out the aftermath of one pack's personal tragedy, and finally plunge into the astonishingly peaceful society of killer whales living in the crystalline waters of the Pacific Northwest. Beyond Words brings forth powerful and illuminating insight into the unique personalities of animals through extraordinary stories of animal joy, grief, jealousy, anger, and love. The similarity between human and nonhuman consciousness, self-awareness, and empathy calls us to re-evaluate how we interact with animals" --… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
Safina's book is a thought-provoking exploration of the lives and cognition animals, drawing largely on evidence and anecdotes of elephants, wolves, and killer whales. What "Beyond Words" does well is marshal evidence and first-hand accounts of animal experts and examines them in order to show an animal's cognitive abilities and their individuality. Safina focuses on animals who are a "who." My main beef with the book, compared to writers such as John McPhee or Barry Lopez, is Safina's constant and jarring digressions. This book would have benefited from a bit more organization and a few less stories about his dogs. ( )
  b.masonjudy | Apr 3, 2020 |
Heartbreaking and awe-inspiring and lovely. I doubt anyone can enjoy this book and not pester their nearby friends and family with marvelous anecdotes from it. There are some small points that I disagree with the author — on some stretches of theory of mind, for example — but the book is always curious, open, and kind, in conversation with the reader as well as with the animal world. ( )
  eilonwy_anne | Mar 9, 2019 |
Safina notes at the outset that unlike other published work on animal behavior (including prior works of his), this book would ask who other animals are, and not rule out of bounds any assumptions or questions concerning their inner lives. Rejected is the behaviorist mantra "Observe what an animal does ... but speculation about mental experiences is meaningless, a waste of time." [12] That attitude has merit in constrained circumstances, but as an elementary outlook it is ridiculous. Humans are animals, and we are comfortable assuming a typical inner life for other people though we cannot know that life directly. We readily concede unique personalities for all individuals. Further, science has much to contribute regarding what is likely of another animal's inner life, from basic sensory systems and neural pathways, to demonstrations of decision-making and displays of emotion. (And of course: speech and language, and myriad other forms of animal communication.) It is frankly unscientific to ignore all this information as though it means nothing, speciously arguing humans cannot "know" other species except as objects.

With the decision to ask who and not what about elephants, wolves, whales, Safina makes another distinction. "I'd somehow assumed that my quest was to let the animals show how much they are like us. My task now -- a much harder task, a much deeper task -- would be to endeavor to see who animals simply are -- like us or not." [13] (Alongside this outlook, then, a subtheme on identifying that which makes us human, effectively turning the gun on its owner. Safina comes to no conclusion on this point, however, merely returning to it occasionally as observations warrant.)

When we look for "intelligence" in other species, we often commit Protagoras's error of believing that "man is the measure of all things." Because we're human, we tend to study non-humans' human-like intelligence. Are they intelligent like we are? No, and therefore, we win! Are we intelligent like they are? We don't care. We insist that they play our game, we won't play theirs. [283]

That is the broad outlook of the book. I suspect self-selection bias results in Safina's typical reader not needing to be persuaded on these points, and that's fine, Safina offers a more rigourous look at assumptions of animals as equals, and it's good to get them. The weight of the book, though, is not in that outlook or moral position. It's in the scores of facts, observations, and scientific speculation on evolution, examples of animal behavior, stories of individual animals. It would be for those, as well, that the book is worth re-reading.

• Dogs may be the result of wolves self-domesticating, and not from husbandry
• Human evolution may also feature self-domestication: insight of bonobos exhibiting perpetually juvenile behaviors of chimpanzees (friendly, cooperative, matriarchal), and civilized human behaviour includes parallel features
• No free-living killer whales documented to have killed kayaker or swimmer, despite numerous opportunities and arguably motivation. (Captive whales have killed on several occasions.) ( )
1 vote elenchus | Oct 16, 2017 |
I am listening to the audiobook. The book is broken into sections. The first part is mainly concerned with elephants. The author writes so well I feel like am in Africa (Kenya) observing the elephants in the wild with Dr. Cynthia Moss.

I will write more for a review but I could not wait until the end... Read it. ( )
  honkcronk | Jun 16, 2016 |
Enjoyable and insightful although it felt a bit long at times. I have always felt respectful of animals abilities and feelings, this makes me appreciate them more. ( )
  becka11y2 | Jan 19, 2016 |
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Epigraph
I thought of the long ages of the past during which the successive generations of these things of beauty had run their course . . . with no intelligennt eye to gaze upon their loveliness, to all appearances such a wanton waste of beauty. . . . This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man. . . . Their happiness and enjoyments, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immedately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone.

      —Alfred Russel Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, 1869
We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life antd time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

            —Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928
Dedication
For the people in these pages who watch and truly listen,
who tell us what they are hearing in other voices that share our air,
and in the silence
First words
                  Into the Mind Field

Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.
                  —Job 12:7-8, King James Version

Another big group of dolphins had just surfaced alongside our moving vessel—leaping and splashing and calling mysteriously back and forth in their squeally, whistly way, with many babies swift alongside their mothers.
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