communication

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scientists such as Frans de Waal, Marc Bekoff, and Carl Safina have become well-known public voices breaking down this outdated taboo.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.

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Book review – Why Chimpanzees Can’t Learn Language and Only Humans Can

7-minute read

The title of this book leaves little to the imagination and seems like a strong statement – how can we be so sure? The author, behavioural psychologist Herbert S. Terrace, is in a very strong position to make this claim though. Here, he revisits a remarkable experiment conducted in the 1970s to teach a chimpanzee to speak using sign language that ultimately failed. Bringing together subsequent developments in linguistics, palaeoanthropology, and developmental psychology, he has written an incredibly interesting and well-structured book on the evolutionary basis of language.

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Book review – Rage Inside The Machine: The Prejudice of Algorithms, and How to Stop the Internet Making Bigots of Us All

8-minute read

There is an amusing and slightly acerbic acronym that has stuck with me from my days working at a computer helpdesk for an international oil firm: PICNIC. Short for “problem in chair, not in computer”, my colleagues used it as code whenever an employee rocked up at our helpdesk with a complaint or problem that was due to human clumsiness rather than malfunctioning hardware. “Did you check that the printer was plugged into the power socket?”

Nevertheless, says Artificial Intelligence (AI) researcher Robert Elliott Smith, our blind faith in computers and the algorithms that run them is misguided. Based on his 30 years experience working with AI, the aptly titled Rage Inside the Machine takes the reader on a historical tour of computing to show how today’s technology is both less amoral and more prejudiced than we give it credit for.

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Book review – Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are

Science has brought us many advances and has deepened our understanding of the world around us, pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance. But as it has given, so it has taken. It has revealed a vast stage whose age is measured in incomprehensible epochs of Deep Time and whose dimensions stretch away into the frigid depths of an uncaring cosmos. Leaving us bereft of meaning and purpose, science has driven home how utterly insignificant we, the denizens of that Pale Blue Dot, ultimately are. Personally, I find this perspective deeply humbling and I know many scientists feel likewise, but I also realise we live in a bubble of our own.

The notion that we are unique, special, or – in the eyes of many still – God’s chosen children, persists. Luckily for us all, evolutionary biologist David P. Barash is here to take down our “species-wide narcissism” a peg or two (or three). But far from a self-congratulatory circle-jerk, Through a Glass Brightly is an erudite, life-affirming, and sometimes riotously amusing look at ourselves.

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Book review – Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Teach Us about Ourselves

Do animals experience joy, grief, or shame? Most people will be quick to attribute all sorts of emotions to pets and other animals. But many biologists remain uncomfortable with this, well, touchy-feely subject. As scientists, we are trained to be objective, cool, and detached when making observations. Anthropomorphism – the attribution of human traits to animals – has traditionally been a big no-no. But the tide is turning, and well-known Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal is here to help it along. Mama’s Last Hug is a smart, opinionated, and insightful book arguing we have long overestimated humans and underestimated animals.

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Book review – Incredible Journeys: Exploring the Wonders of Animal Navigation

The ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi (also written Lao Tzu) supposedly wrote that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. But as writer David Barrie shows with Incredible Journeys, before we can even take that step, every journey starts with navigation: where are you and where are you going? Animals of all stripes can make incredibly long journeys, usually without getting lost. This wonderful popular science book explores the remarkable diversity of strategies they employ to find their way.

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Book review – Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style (Second Edition)

Science is fascinating but it has one problem. Scientists. Don’t get me wrong, I admire you all for your endless curiosity, dedication, and hard work. But you have to admit, most scientists are not very good at talking about their work. If we can bore our colleagues with our presentations, imagine what we do to more general audiences given half a chance! At a time when science is under attack more than ever before (Hello, Trump), and the stakes are higher than ever before (Hello, climate change), this is a problem. Enter Randy Olson, who abandoned a tenured professorship in marine biology and moved into Hollywood and film making. His plea to us all: “I love you very much, but, please, can you stop being such scientists?”

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Book review – The Book of Humans: The Story of How We Became Us

Historically, humans have long considered themselves special compared to the natural world around them. It shows, for example, in old depictions where humans are at or near the top of a chain of lifeforms, with only angels and gods above us. Darwin caused a tremendous ruckus by saying we were descended from primates, and evolutionary biology has since had a long history of diminishing our anthropocentric worldview. With The Book of Humans, self-professed science geek Adam Rutherford has written an entertaining exploration of human evolution, showing that, amidst the teeming multitudes of lifeforms surrounding us, we are really not that special. And yet we are.

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Book review – Eye of the Shoal: A Fish-Watcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything

Helen Scales is a marine biologist, diver, and surfer, and is no stranger to writing good books. I have previously read Poseidon’s Steed: The Story of Seahorses, from Myth to Reality from her hand. The book after that, Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells, received critical praise in the press and was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Biology book prize. Here, Scales turns her attention to fish. Is this another page-turner waiting to be recognised?

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Book review – What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

Do you have a dog? I grew up surrounded by Newfoundlanders. Ever wondered what they are thinking? Whether they think at all? You’d be forgiven for thinking that What It’s Like to Be a Dog is another book for dog lovers and, in part, it is. But don’t let the title mislead you, this book is primarily a popular account of ongoing developments in animal neuroscience, specifically on what scanning mammal brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can tell us about our shared similarities.

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