Book review – Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

7-minute read

Recognising that animals are intelligent beings with inner lives, emotions – even personalities – has a troubled place in the history of ethology, the study of animal behaviour. For most pet owners, these things will seem self-evident, but ethologists have long been hostile to the idea of anthropomorphising animals by attributing human characteristics to them. The tide is turning, though, and on the back of decades-long careers, scientists such as Frans de Waal, Marc Bekoff, and Carl Safina have become well-known public voices breaking down this outdated taboo. In preparation of reviewing Safina’s new book Becoming Wild, I decided I should first read his bestseller Beyond Words. I have to issue an apology here: courtesy of the publisher Henry Holt I have had a review copy of this book for several years that gathered dust until now. And that was entirely my loss, as Beyond Words turned out to be a beautiful, moving book.

Beyond Words

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, written by Carl Safina, published in Europe by Souvenir Press in September 2016 (hardback, 480 pages)

A plain summary of this book could run something like this: a large book in four parts in which ecologist Carl Safina delves into the inner worlds of elephants, wolves, and orcas, with frequent comparisons to other animals. This is based on interviews with biologists, time spent with them in the field observing their study animals, and close reading of both the books they wrote and the primary scientific literature. In Africa, he speaks to Iain Douglas-Hamilton and Amboseli Elephant Research Project leader Cynthia Moss. In Yellowstone National Park he spends time with long-term wolf-watchers Laurie Lyman, Doug McLaughlin, and Rick McIntyre. The latter has since started chronicling the lives of Yellowstone’s alpha wolves in a yet-to-be-completed trilogy. And on the Pacific coast between the USA and Canada he accompanies Ken Balcomb who has dedicated his life to observing orcas, while listening closely to Erich Hoyt, Alexandra Morton, Denise Herzing, and Diana Reiss.

This summary would tell you of the long-term studies and numerous observations that have revealed so much. How elephants in a herd defer to the leadership of a matriarch, who is a walking memory bank of valuable knowledge on e.g. the location of food and water holes in times of famine and drought. How they show empathy by caring for their wounded and sick, even grieving their dead, paying close attention to bones long after the death of their owner. How they communicate, using infrasound to cover long distances, and how the slaughter for ivory causes life-long havoc by destroying family structures.

The wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park (who will finally get their due later this year in the forthcoming Yellowstone Wolves) have revealed how the different alpha males and females have their own personalities, some ruling their pack calmly, others tyrannically. These are clever carnivores who outsmart competitors threatening their pups, and cooperate in a complex fashion to bring down large prey. Here, too, human hunters killing wolves causes collateral damage that reverberates down the social hierarchy, breaking up and reshuffling packs, often costing more lives.

“Not assuming that other animals have thoughts and feelings was a good start for a new science. Insisting they did not was bad science.”

And killer whales? These highly social and long-lived marine mammals live in pods that, like other cetaceans, show what can only be called culture. Such as their exceptional dietary specialisation that is taught to youngsters. These echo-locating predators show refined, cooperative hunting techniques and are intensely social, mothers contributing to the survival of their children and grandchildren well after menopause. Just as elephants and wolves, they recognize other individuals after prolonged periods of separation (and show it too). As told elsewhere, we learned much of this the hard way by catching killer whales for display in marine theme parks. Suffice to say that breaking up families and isolating individuals in small pools has turned out to be extremely traumatising.

But this way of reviewing the book would neglect much of what makes it such an exceptional read. And I am not talking about all the other intelligent beings populating these pages: the primates, dogs, dolphins, and birds.

Take the much-needed history lesson of why scientists have been so shy to grant animals a measure of agency and intelligence: the mere mention of it could kill your academic career. In Mama’s Last Hug, Frans de Waal called this resistance to anthropomorphising “anthropodenial”. Safina agrees that we have taken it to the other extreme: “Not assuming that other animals have thoughts and feelings was a good start for a new science. Insisting they did not was bad science.” (p. 27*). Notably, though, where De Waal makes a careful distinction between emotions and feelings, Safina uses these two words interchangeably.

“Peel back the skin and underneath we find similarities everywhere […] and why would we expect anything else? We know that evolution excels at reusing, repurposing, and rejiggling existing structures and processes.”

Or what of the gentle skewering of academic concepts such as “theory of mind”, the realisation that others have their own motivations and desires? Those who continue to deny animals this should get out more, for they show “that many humans lack a theory of mind for non-humans“. In Safina’s hands, the mirror mark test, that supposed litmus test of self-awareness, looks daft. Animals failing to recognize their own reflection only show that they do not understand reflection, without it, well, reflecting on self-awareness. In the wild, both self-awareness and gauging another’s state of mind are often a matter of life or death.

Probably one of the most convincing threads that runs through this book, and to which Safina returns frequently, is that of evolutionary legacy. Consciousness, emotion – the mental traits that we long thought as uniquely human – have deep roots. Peel back the skin and underneath we find similarities everywhere: the same neurological circuits, the same hormones, the same physiological pathways. And why would we expect anything else? We know that evolution excels at reusing, repurposing, and rejiggling existing structures and processes.

So, he happily goes against the grain and speculates about animals’ mental experience in this book, though always with one eye on evidence, logic, and science. (He helpfully bundles up the more unbelievable ones on cetaceans in a chapter called “Woo-Woo”.) To really see animals not for what, but for who they are, observations outside of the artificial environments of laboratories and captive enclosures are vital. Consequently, as Safina admits, much of what he relates here is anecdotal. As many sceptical scientists, myself included, like to say: “the plural of anecdote is not data”. But the bin in his mind labelled “unlikely stories” is getting cluttered. Anecdotes can only keep piling up for so long before you can no longer ignore them.

“[T]his book would not have the impact it has had if it was not for the writing. It is easy to see why Safina’s oeuvre has garnered literary awards.”

Finally, this book would not have the impact it has had if it was not for the writing. It is easy to see why Safina’s oeuvre has garnered literary awards. His many, short chapters are threaded together suspensefully. His wordplay sometimes borders on brilliant: when observing our shared evolutionary history and legacy: “beneath the skin, kin”; when pondering our endless cruelty towards animals: “the next step beyond human civilization: humane civilization”. And if the many stories do not already move you, I will leave you with a quote that choked me up, where he makes the point that the study of animal behaviour is not a mere “boutique endeavour”:

Anyone can read about how much we are losing. All the animals that human parents paint on nursery room walls, all the creatures depicted in paintings of Noah’s ark, are actually in mortal trouble now. Their flood is us. What I’ve tried to show is how other animals experience the lives they so energetically and so determinedly cling to. I wanted to know who these creatures are. Now we may feel, beneath our ribs, why they must live.” (p. 411)

Beyond Words is a heartfelt gem of a book. Whether you are fascinated by the lives of charismatic megafauna such as elephants, wolves, or killer whales, or have an interest in animal behaviour, pick up this book. It is never too late to read a bestseller that you have ignored so far.


*All emphases in the quotes included here are in the original.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

You can support this blog using below affiliate links, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases:

Beyond Words paperback, hardback, ebook, audiobook or MP3 CD

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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