Book review – Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn to be Animals

7-minute read

In his previous book, Beyond Words, ecologist Carl Safina convinced his readers of the rich inner lives of animals. Just like we do, they have thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But the similarities do not stop there. Becoming Wild focuses on animal culture, the social knowledge that is transmitted between individuals and generations through sharing and learning. The more we look, the more animals seem less different from us – or we from them. On top of that, Safina puts forward several eye-opening and previously-overlooked implications of animal culture.

Becoming Wild

Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn to be Animals, written by Carl Safina, published in Europe by Oneworld Publications in April 2020 (hardback, 377 pages)

To observe animal culture first-hand, Safina focuses on three species and accompanies the researchers that study them in the field. He furthermore draws on the primary scientific literature on culture in a host of other species. The stars of this book are sperm whales and the long-term Dominica Sperm Whale Project led by Shane Gero, the scarlet macaws in Peru studied by Don Brightsmith and Gaby Vigo’s group, and the chimpanzees in Uganda’s Budongo Forest studied by Cat Hobaiter’s group. They are worth the price of admission alone.

I admit I have a thing for the denizens of the deep. Just as Safina previously showed orcas to be fascinating, here he taught me how little I know about sperm whales. Clearly, I must read up on them. They communicate in clicks generated by the world’s most powerful animal sonar. Beyond finding squid in the deep, unique patterns of clicks (so-called codas) announce group membership to other whales. Sperm whale families worldwide are organised in different clans that do not mingle, each sounding their own coda. And these have to be learned by youngsters. Safina furthermore gives a searing history of whaling and its effects and considers what we know of culture in other cetaceans.

It is hard not to like parrots, and the section on macaws provides plenty of antics to enjoy. These pair-bonding birds teach their young where food is to be found and what ripens when. Sodium is in short supply in this part of the jungle, so macaws use ancient clay deposits as communal salt licks. But this is also an opportunity to socialise, find mates, and see who is hanging out with who. Here, too, groups of parrots have idiosyncratic cultural preferences for certain salt licks over others.

“The three stars of this book – sperm whales, scarlet macaws, and chimpanzees – are worth the price of admission alone.”

Chimpanzees, then, have been intensively studied and examples of culture abound. Different groups have unique tool use and dietary habits that get passed down the generations, not just through copying, but at times even through teaching. Some chimps use rocks as anvils and hammers to crack nuts, some craft wooden spears to kill bush babies hiding inside logs, while others raid nearby farms for guava fruit that most chimps will not touch. They live in strongly hierarchical groups where alpha males vie for power, and violent outbursts are frequent. Youngsters have to be taught everybody’s place in the ranking as they grow up. Nevertheless, Cat Hobaiter is at pains to show Safina that most of the time these animals are peaceful. Based on this, primary literature, and books such as The New Chimpanzee and The Real Chimpanzee, Safina, in turn, paints a nuanced picture of chimpanzee society. Interested readers will also want to look out for the forthcoming Chimpanzee: Lessons from our Sister Species and Chimpanzees in Context for the state-of-the-art of the field.

But these three focus species are not all there is. Safina examines other studies to show how widespread animal culture is. He draws parallels between humans and other animals and probingly asks what this means for how we treat them and their world. Perhaps no more so than on page 327: “No wisdom tradition grants a generation permission to deplete the world and drive it toward ruin […] Life is a relay race, our task merely to pass the torch.” And he develops interesting ideas, two of which struck me as eye-opening.

One is the underrated significance of culture for conservation biology. Much of how animals learn to be animals depends on knowledge being passed from generation to generation. Thus, the biodiversity crisis is about more than just numerical losses, genetic bottlenecks, and habitat fragmentation. Unique cultures are snuffed out as we kill animals and destroy their habitats to claim more room for ourselves. Worse, breaking these links of knowledge transmission also greatly hinders reintroduction efforts. Without their elders to teach them how to live in their particular environments, young animals often struggle to survive, while willy-nilly translocating mature animals is bound to run into obstacles. It is a disheartening insight that, it seems to me, many conservation biologists and organisations still have to come to terms with.

“[…] the biodiversity crisis is about more than just numerical losses, genetic bottlenecks, and habitat fragmentation. Unique cultures are snuffed out as we kill animals and destroy their habitats to claim more room for ourselves”

The other concerns the role of culture in speciation and evolution. Safina hinted at this in Beyond Words but here develops this idea more fully. The evolution of new species starts with reproductive isolation between different groups, this much biologists agree on. But what drives reproductive isolation? Traditionally, geography is invoked: the formation of mountains and rivers, or the conquest of islands separates populations in space, preventing reproduction. If this persists, populations start to diverge and are on their way to becoming separate species. Biologists call this allopatric speciation. But there are cases, the Lake Victoria cichlids being a textbook example, where species continue to share the same habitat and could interbreed but for some reason do not. This is known as sympatric speciation. Biologists have long struggled to explain what causes reproductive isolation here.

Culture could.

As Safina points out, socially learned preferences lead to avoidance between groups and thus to reproductive isolation. In orcas, for example, different groups with different diets (fish vs. marine mammals) are already showing morphological changes. Safina proposes that, next to natural and sexual selection, cultural selection could be a pathway to speciation. It is a thought-provoking idea.

“[…] socially learned preferences lead to avoidance between groups and thus to reproductive isolation […] Safina proposes that, next to natural and sexual selection, cultural selection could be a pathway to speciation. “

What makes Becoming Wild such a pleasure to read is that Safina speaks to you in many voices. There is Safina the ecologist, Safina the conservationist, Safina the philosopher, etc. He has many angles on his subject which keeps the narrative flowing and the reader engaged. His questions are probing: Who are we sharing the planet with and what is life like for them? In places, his prose soars into poetry. When writing of the dawn chorus: “Dawn is the song that silence sings […] as the eyelash of daybreak rolls endlessly across the planet, a chorus of birds and monkeys is eternally greeting a new dawn.” (p. 232) And the epigraph that describes Shane Gero’s revelation as to why he studies sperm whales was so powerful that Safina had me in tears before even starting the book.

Becoming Wild is another jewel in the crown of Safina’s work that packs fascinating field studies, interesting theoretical ideas, soul-searching questions, and probing reflections on human and animal nature into a book that is as profound as it is moving.


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:

Becoming Wild hardback, paperback, ebook or audio CD

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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