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Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals
by Jonathan Balcombe
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I like to feed the mourning doves that come to my feeder; they are survivalists always interested in a good meal. During a few snowy days last winter all nine of them took refuge on my porch, huddling together for warmth and filling up on calorie-dense seeds. I felt like I was giving Mother Nature a little helping hand during a rough spell. I learned in this book that “between 40 and 70 million mourning doves are shot by American hunters yearly.” (p.14) I thought our resident Cooper’s hawk was their biggest predator.
The author has written a compelling and informative book, helping us to understand the inner lives of animals, and why we need to change our beliefs about and relationships with other animals on Earth. This new and improved us is referred to as our Second Nature, with the first being our present paradigm where we think of animals as lesser creatures.
There is strong evidence linking cruelty to animals with societal violence. “When we treat other feeling creatures cruelly, we are more prone to treat other people that way.” (p.202) Making the change to our Second Nature could not only relieve the suffering we cause to animals, but also lead to broad and sweeping positive changes for humanity.
Even if you now feel you must eat meat or that lab animals are necessary to cure disease, you should read this book to become better informed about your planet and possibilities for the future that aren’t dystopian.
I remember as a child eating meat products with names like ‘jellied veal’, ‘liver-sausage’, ‘corned beef’, ‘hazlet’, ‘ox-tail soup’ and ‘tongue’. They were just labels at the time, for things I put in my mouth. Only much later would I associate them with animals.
Now, reading Jonathan Balcombe’s new book ‘Second Nature – The Inner Lives of Animals’ I’m asking myself why it took so long to make that rather obvious connection. In fact, it’s got me thinking about a whole host of issues related to how we as a species perceive and treat other animals – nonhuman beings as Balcombe prefers to call them. For the issues Second Nature addresses have as much to do with human morality and ethics as they do with animal behaviour.
Balcombe wants to open our eyes to the possibility of accepting animals as fellow sentient beings, with feelings and emotions as real to them as ours are to us; beings with lives that are pleasurable and worth living for their own sake; lives worthy of sensitivity and respect. As Balcombe puts it: “My chief aim in this book is to close the gap between human beings and animals – by helping us understand the animal experience, and by elevating animals from their lowly status.”
He begins by setting out the evidence for animal sentience, emotion and feeling, then discusses the implications this has for human attitudes and actions.
Part I summarises the findings of numerous field and laboratory studies that demonstrate a range of animal capabilities, experiences and sensitivities we usually associate more with people. Part II is a description of how animals use these qualities to interact and communicate between themselves and with other species, including man. Part III focuses on the relationship between humans and animals, and includes a discussion on popular perceptions and how they are changing with what Balcombe sees as an emerging new paradigm in attitudes and awareness.
Central to Balcombe’s plea is the assertion that humans and animals differ in degree rather than kind. Each type of animal, Balcombe says, including man, has evolved to operate in its own world, or ‘umwelt’, equipped with an appropriate package of sensory experience and feelings suited to that world. We shouldn’t assume life experience in one umwelt is inherently superior to that in another. Humans can never directly experience another animal’s umwelt (who can say what personal echo-location or magnetic navigation feels like? – to use Balcombe’s examples) but we accept that animals have complex sensory capabilities. Which begs the question why, when emotions and feelings are at least as real and necessary to us as senses in explaining our lives and behaviours, would we deny them in animals? Second Nature is certainly thought provoking on these questions.
Many readers will I expect, from watching natural history on TV or casual reading, recognise something of the better known case studies about Washoe the chimp, grieving elephants, and intelligent ravens. That said, the number and diversity of cited studies is impressive, and most of the content is new to me.
Take Kelly the dolphin for example, who was taught to trade paper litter found in her pool for fish, but discovered the fish flow could be maximised by trading smaller pieces of paper torn from a larger sheet she had stashed away at the bottom of the pool. And tests for empathy, where increased stress reactions were measured in animals who witnessed the suffering of another animal – not necessarily of the same species.
Consciousness is a key theme in Second Nature, with Balcombe describing how chimpanzees have demonstrated a ‘theory of mind’ by showing they are consciously aware of consciousness in other chimps.
Other studies support the proposition that animals, elephants for example, follow individual lives that are the product of their unique experience. And that animals, like us, deal with feelings over the short and long term; they remember experiences, their memories shaping what they become. There are even indications that elephants have a sense of the future and their own mortality. Further examples illustrate conditions ranging from depression in starlings, to post traumatic stress disorder in elephants, to anxiety in mice – including their remarkable ability to self-medicate.
Exploring the relevance of instinct, intelligence and language, Balcombe rejects simplistic models that associate instinct with animals and intelligence with humans. Instinct does not preclude conscious experience, and intelligence is not a good measure for moral standing. As Balcombe puts it: “Animals are as intelligent as they need to be”. The evidence shows that many animals, far from following some kind of invariant program, are capable of learned behaviour and can adapt flexibly to new challenges. And as regards language, as it’s not linked to sensory activity, animals are able to suffer with or without it.
Balcombe closes the animal-human gap from both directions, elevating our opinion of animal capabilities while questioning the superiority of our own. We are reminded that animal senses and capabilities – physical, and on occasion mental – can be superior to ours. Balcombe points to our penchant for industrial scale cruelty and destruction, questioning our right to label other species as uncivilized. Our culture, Balcombe says, particularly through the media, overplays the negative aspects of animals’ lives, pushing the ‘red in tooth in and claw’ image of a natural world where animals permanently struggle at the edge of survival, flailing at the smallest injury.
Part III sees Balcolme getting into his narrative stride, explaining where he thinks our relationship with animals might be heading. Under the heading ‘A New Humanity’ he describes a shift from a traditional attitude of ‘might makes right’ towards a more informed and caring paradigm – a transition he likens to the changes of mind-set that accompanied the end of slavery and the winning of womens’ rights. The process has already started, with impacts most tangibly captured in animal related legislation for the protection of species, improvements in the treatment of animals we eat, and tighter controls on laboratory animal experimentation.
Interestingly, with Second Nature appealing mostly to our moral sense, Part III includes some purely practical, well stated, arguments for reduced meat consumption based on health, resource conservation and sustainability. This leads to a brief politico-economic discussion on the compatibility of the capitalist/growth model with sustainable environments; inflammatory territory which Balcombe handles with a welcome non-emotive sense of balance.
The somewhat uneasy relationship science seems to have with the idea of animal feelings is one I find interesting in it’s own right. Balcolme, a scientist himself, criticises science’s tendency to favour the simplest of plausible theories. It’s one reason, he says, why we have the dogmatic starting assumption that animals don’t have thoughts and feelings, rather than the other way around. Conversely, Second Nature and other works on a connected theme (Masson’s and McCarthy’s ‘When Elephants Weep’ comes to mind) are particularly open to criticism when authors use language outside the scientific lexicon. There may be concensus on what sentience means, consciousness less so; but what to make of words like goodness, compassion, and selflessness? Personally, I don’t have a problem with Balcombe’s style because I don’t see the issues being wholly resolvable with today’s science; we’d need a workable scientific model of moral behaviour for that. A scientific proof isn’t going to pop up and tell us to treat animals better, no matter how many books we read. However, and I suspect this is where Balcombe is coming from, I do think science is the best tool for revealing true animal states that might then be judged logically incompatible with, or at least challenge, established moral and ethical standards. Of course, how established those standards ever are is a discussion for another day.
On a critical note, and it’s probably the scientist in me kicking up, there were times when I wanted more detail from the case studies, more counter-argument, and deeper discussion of skeptical views. That the early chapters are crammed with properly referenced case studies is a good thing but, in a work of this length, that means trade-offs in content. The shear volume of examples also gives the early chapters something of a ‘listy’ feel, although that corrects in the later, more analytical material. Also, I thought the singling out of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett for criticism was unnecessary and unhelpful, particularly so when Dawkins has discussed the positive implications for animal rights that discovery (or creation) of a hypothetical man-ape hybrid would have. Examples of the darker side of nature, like the apparently cruel egg-laying behaviour of parasitic wasps, are perhaps over-quoted by the atheist camp, but only as arguments against the existence of a benevolent god, not a celebration. Moreover, Balcombe might want to keep the secularists on his team.
Despite these minor niggles, I have to confess Second Nature has caused me to think more deeply than I otherwise would about a topic I’d mentally parked. Commendably, it brings all the relevant issues up to date in one concise volume, and has plenty of references for those who want to dig deeper.
Will Second Nature change readers’ attitudes towards animals? I think in some cases it will. What it won’t do is resolve any consequential moral dilemma we might have around that next burger purchase. That’s something each of us must think about quietly on our own.
Ethology, the scientific study of animal behavior, is an established field of academic endeavor that we now take for granted. But when Jane Goodall began her research in Gombe, Tanzania what is now unthinkable to us happened to her only 50 years ago. She was criticized by her scientific colleagues for describing the chimpanzees she studied as individuals, giving them personal names as opposed to numbers, and talking about them as having unique characters. Goodall saw subjects with psychological and emotional needs who lived lives that mattered to them. Her colleagues saw objects functioning as Cartesian clocks wound up to survive by instinctive impulses. The seventeenth century French philosopher Rene Descartes said animals "have no reason at all, and that it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, just as a clock, which is only composed of wheels and weights is able to tell the hours and measures the time more correctly than we can with all our wisdom."
Balcombe describes this tension with how we dualistically view animals simultaneously as objects and subjects as an “imperialist view.” Further, it is a perspective which is “rocked by our growing awareness of their capabilities and their sentience, and the inescapable fact that on an interdependent planet what befalls them befalls us.” (186) Balcombe’s use of the phrase “imperialist view” signifies a key difference in his approach to writing about ethology from many others. Balcombe, an independent animal behavior research scientist, is a vegan and an animal rights campaigner. And here you have what makes Second Nature and his first book, Pleasurable Kingdom, distinctly different. Balcombe’s writings are a carefully crafted balance of academic rigor and empathic wisdom. For example, he writes in Second Nature that we are at a moment in time when concurrently the number of animals exploited for our consumption is at its greatest and “our relationship to animals is poised for flight.” (186)
"The era of our First Nature—in which we view animals as things to be used and taken for shortsighted gains—is coming to an end. Its downfall is inevitable because animal exploitation is unsustainable on our finite planet with a growing human population. The new era is grounded in science and driven by ethics. It is an emergent, less selfish worldview that grants animals the respect and consideration they’re due. I call it Second Nature." (200)
The three sections which make up Second Nature – Experience, Coexistence, Emergence – include summary descriptions of and discussions about academic research cataloging how each animal is a “unique individual with personality traits, an emotional profile, and a library of knowledge built on experience.” In short, “not just biology, but a biography.” (204) Balcombe writes about, for example, democratic bees, cooperative rats, urine-reading elephants and much more. These descriptions are interwoven with accounts from Balcombe’s own non-invasive, scientific research in the field and anecdotal stories from observations he made of his two cats, Mica and Megan, and other animals and birds he’s observed out and about. Indeed, reading Second Nature made me realize the importance of watching nature carefully and how it is possible to learn much from what takes place around you. For example, I live in a small community on the southern English coast which has one of the most densely populated colonies of gulls. In the spring and summer, they nest on nearby rooftops and their mating, breeding and rearing makes fascinating viewing.
As intriguing as it is to learn about the rich and complex lives of animals, the chapters in Second Nature which I found particularly interesting are those in which Balcombe explores the consequences of knowing about the inner lives of animals. This starts with Chapter Eight, “Being Nice: Virtue,” which forcefully makes the case that, as it is for humans, it is also true for animals that there are benefits from living cooperatively in groups. Imagine such a group without the “unwritten moral code,” Balcombe writes, large lions would kill and eat small ones. “Such behavior would soon lead to group disintegration.” He does not claim an “absence of violent conflict in animal societies” (123) but, as he discusses in Chapter Nine, “Rethinking Cruel Nature,” nature is not as “red in tooth and claw” as we would like it to be. For starters, I did not know that Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” is dedicated to a friend who died suddenly. The infamous quote has nothing to do with the alleged behavior of animals at all. It is, of course, understandable to be angry about the sudden loss of a loved one. Nonetheless, we are guilty of misappropriation and misrepresentation every time we take that line from the Victorian poem unrelated to the subject at hand and transform it into a cliché to allege a universal truth about animal behavior that is not true.
Well, then, why do it?
Well, Balcombe argues, for two reasons. Portraying nature as “red in tooth and claw” has the effect of “raising humans to a higher plane and puts us on the moral high ground” and, second, it grants us permission to "claim our own savagery toward animals as merely part of the natural process. Cruel nature absolves us of any guilt for treating its denizens cruelly. Thus, cruel nature provides a sweeping palliative for our own moral shortcomings. Whatever we do, we are justified." (146)
In other words, it is a convenience and an excuse. This leads us back to the beginning and our first nature, the imperial view. What’s so wrong with recognizing ourselves us animals? “It is, after all, Second Nature,” taunts Balcombe. (204)
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Jonathan Balcombe, animal behaviorist and author of the critically acclaimed "Pleasurable Kingdom," draws on the latest research, observational studies and personal anecdotes to reveal the full gamut of animal experience--from emotions, to problem solving, to moral judgment, while at the same time challenging the widely held idea that nature is red in tooth and claw and highlighting animal traits we have disregarded until now.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)591.5Natural sciences and mathematics Zoology Specific topics in natural history of animals Habits and behavior
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What a change from Hauser’s book! Balcome devotes the whole book to convince us that inner lives of animals are not much poorer than ours. He shows that they are capable of altruistic behavior and some of them operate with an obvious theory of mind, display social behavior, sense of fairness and group decision making.
Contrary to Hauser, Balcombe claims that animals have moral sense, feel empathy and have sense of fairness. In addition to apes, he cites the case of cormorants who would help fishermen by diving for fish as long as every seventh fish is theirs. They refuse to dive and help out again if the order is not kept and their seventh fish is withheld from them showing thereby not only a sense of fairness but also an ability to count.
The info that was completely new and surprising to me was on animal group decision-making. It turns out that decisions in many animals groups are made quite democratically. A decision for a group to move on is made when a majority- typically about 60% of the group- wants to move on. For example, in case of deer an individual decision is shown by standing up, swans vote by the head movement, and in African buffalo the females make a decision and the rest follows.
An interesting book even though not terribly well written. ( )