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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 387-390 ( 18 September )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/bekoff.html

Essay Review

Mining the Minds of Animals

By Nanelle R. Barash

Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions and Heart
By Marc Bekoff 
Oxford University Press (2002)

The Smile of a Dolphin: Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions
Edited by Marc Bekoff 
Discovery Books (2000)

In many ways, it seems that the world is falling apart. We humans are killing each other left and right, destroying our environment, torturing our fellow creatures and coming close to ruining our only world in any number of inventive ways.

The truth is that we are on our planet for good - or at least for the next few hundred years - so we might as well try to take care of everyone on board, from small children in Afghanistan to the large cats of Asia, from the elderly in our own country to fish in the ocean. Animals coexist with people, and in fact, people are animals. By caring for and understanding animals, all the myriad species, behaviors, and individual personalities, we not only save the world for our offspring and ourselves, but we will understand more about our own nature, our human nature. After all, “human” derives from the same root as “humus.” We, like other animals, are rooted in organicity, in creatureliness, in the oozy muck of nature.

Our genetic makeup is indisputably similar to the great apes, our closest relatives. Estimates suggest a 98% genetic overlap with chimpanzees, with gorillas and orangutans following close behind, and the monkeys our next closest cousins. It is also becoming clear, however, that human nature might be more similar to wolf or lion nature than to solitary, herbivorous monkey nature: Prehistoric Homo sapiens lived and hunted together. As social carnivores - or omnivores - our “nature” has evolved a hypersensitivity about other individuals and thus, subtleties to communication not necessarily found in more lonely and peaceful animal species. In other words, when trying to understand ourselves more deeply, we shouldn’t feel constrained to primates. We could, theoretically, learn just as much from fierce fish or kangaroos.

Researchers seeking to extrapolate from (nonhuman) animals to the human variety - especially from any of our more distant, less glamorous relatives - will likely encounter a variant on this comment: “But those animals aren’t intelligent. They can’t think or feel like we can, or even like other primates can.” And that’s where Marc Bekoff’s books come in. Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions and Heart is a basic primer for all animal-conscious individuals as well as a call for responsible scientific inquiry and a celebration of the animal world. The Smile of a Dolphin: Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions, edited by Bekoff, is a thoroughly enjoyable, beautifully illustrated collection of vignettes, covering such subjects as love, fear, and joy, with stories about animals from Orcas to giraffes to octopuses. After first reading Marc Bekoff’s impassioned and well-thought out defense of animal intelligence and emotion, and then discovering the various stories in Smile, it should be abundantly clear that malamutes are no less devoted then human couples, that mongooses have a highly complex society, that even guppies can teach us much about ourselves, that the gulf between animal and human isn’t so great after all.

For years the internal mental life of animals has been the third rail of animal behavior research, and whereas there may have been some benefits in avoiding any intimation that animals think and feel - rather than just “behave” - during the decades that animal behavior was earning its scientific credentials, that time has passed. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the discipline of “cognitive ethology” has begun to achieve increasing legitimacy, thanks in part to Bekoff’s own work, but even more to the pioneering efforts of Donald Griffin. Not coincidentally, Professor Griffin - who decades ago unraveled the mysteries of bat echolocation - had previously acquired such a towering reputation for scientific respectability that he conveyed a degree of legitimacy to an enterprise that many ethologists have long considered beyond the pale. Interested readers may want to consult Griffin’s earlier masterpieces: The Question of Animal Awareness, Animal Thinking, and Animal Minds.

It is also noteworthy that a growing number of animal behavior researchers have forsaken their empirical science to devote themselves to matters of animal welfare. This includes Roger Fouts, Biruté Galdikas, Jane Goodall, Michael Fox, Roger Payne and, most recently, Bekoff himself. Although some may see this trend as regrettable, or as evidence for the soft-headedness (or at least, soft-heartedness) of such biologists, it is equally valid to interpret it as powerful indirect evidence in support of the claim made in both Minding Animals and The Smile of a Dolphin: that animal thoughts and emotions are so genuine, so undeniable and so compelling that many researchers who know them best find themselves committed not just to studying animals, but to helping them.

Of the two books under review here, Minding Animals is both more scholarly and more recent. It covers an immense amount of material in a generally simple and engaging manner. Bekoff reviews the rudiments of sociobiology (kin selection, altruism, etc), while also tackling the question of animal emotions and intelligence, offering suggestions about animal welfare and human-animal interactions, as well as some basic proposals for imbuing science with a greater concern for animal well-being. This book can also be exhausting, because of its scope, as well as occasionally maddening, since it simply cannot cover intriguing issues to the depth that they warrant.

As its title implies, Bekoff’s thesis concerns “minding” animals. Basically, if one “minds” animals, in the author’s conception, one attempts to better understand and care for them (not, as should be obvious, objecting to them, as in “Do you mind if my dog drools all over you?”). To “mind” animals, á la Bekoff, means to treat animals not as resources, but as friends and companions from whom we can learn … about science, about life, and about ourselves. Much scientific inquiry, such as some studies about separation anxiety and mother-child bonds under duress, have been conducted without serious consideration of the subjects’ welfare. Rather, they have been seen as pieces of experimental apparatus, instead of as individuals experiencing immense pain and suffering. Bekoff argues that in science, no less than in daily life, animals deserve to be admired and respected, and thus, allowed to live with dignity - a kind of cross-species Golden Rule.

Bekoff makes his major points about animal intelligence, emotion, and diversity through anecdotes, each of which is a clever snapshot of an animal’s life, worthwhile in its own right. However, the format of the book - many extremely short sections, often individual anecdotes, separated by headings - makes for a rather unsettling read. It is difficult to get into the swing of things when constantly interrupted by another new section, especially if, as often happens, a given offering doesn’t clearly relate to the one preceding. Interspersed between these delightful if occasionally disruptive stories are serious discussions of philosophy and scientific thought. Bekoff’s style is direct and easy to understand. He appears to say what he means, mean what he says, and if he doesn’t always do so in the most beautiful prose, it is at least easy to understand: a real plus in a book presumably meant to be accessible for the general reader.

Bekoff’s discussion of sensitive topics such as the benefits and disadvantages of anthropomorphism is carefully crafted to be sensitive to, or at least respond to, all points of view. Not surprisingly, they consistently come out in his favor. Abundant examples and hypothetical situations all support his position without - one hopes - alienating those who might feel otherwise. During the course of the book, the author’s obvious, deeply felt “minding” of animals is charming and heart-warming, although occasionally a bit “over the top” with self-aggrandizement.

His science seems to be on the mark, although the ever-troublesome problem of anthropomorphism rears its head when discussing burials by foxes or signs of animals falling “in love.” Although I do not dispute that animals form very strong emotional bonds between each other, often turning into love of a sort, I find it unconvincing when Bekoff attributes certain behavior patterns to love alone. For example, cases of male wolves “driving intruders off” to defend their chosen consort from other males, or of a female “rejecting males with whom she has no interest in mating” could more easily - and accurately - be explained by selfish gene theory. (On the other hand, the two aren’t incompatible, since “love” is likely an evolutionary mechanism whereby genes achieve their adaptive ends.)

On the down-side, Bekoff clearly feels so passionate about his animals that he sometimes dissolves into gooey sentimentality or New Age spirituality. There is, nonetheless, much to be gained by looking past these momentary lapses, since Minding Animals is not only informative and entertaining, but in many ways a healthy corrective to the dogmatic refusal - even now - by so many students of animal behavior to entertain the possibility that animals have thoughts and feelings.

The Smile of a Dolphin is a very different book, far less “serious” than Minding Animals; whereas the latter will likely appeal to the well-educated or passionate public, The Smile of a Dolphin works on many levels, for many different readers. Its photography is truly stunning: from the first two-page spreads of abashed-looking wolves and wise-seeming whales to the ending shots of playful polar bears, curious orangutan babies, and magnificent stags, every picture is glorious and beautiful. It is tempting simply to flip from picture to picture, enjoying each slice of the animal kingdom, but to do so would be to miss some remarkable commentary.

This extraordinary book consists of 50 brief essays, each written by an authority, with an associated photo. Every illustration and its connected story fits into one of the following categories: love, fear, aggression and anger, joy and grief, and general feelings such as shame, embarrassment, and friendship. Bekoff has written an interesting and insightful brief introduction to each category, but beyond this it is up to the assembled experts - such as Jane Goodall, Barbara Smuts, Joyce Poole and Irene Pepperberg - to present telling and enjoyable anecdotes about animals they have known and, yes, loved. Some of the stories are buoyant and joyful, conveying a sense of awe about our world and its creatures; many are introspective and philosophical; and still more are sad and deeply troubling. After working through the stories in Smile - although there are many, it is certainly not a chore - I challenge anyone to claim that animals have no feeling, heart, or emotions.

The stories of deprivation, of mothers who have lost offspring or vice versa, are among the most difficult to read as well as the most powerful. The baby moose who would not leave her dead mother’s bones, the chimpanzee who literally died of grief after his mother’s death, the elephants apparently paying homage to their dead ancestors: The stories truly tug at the heartstrings. Thankfully, there are also accounts of rats making distinct noises while being tickled, and of piglets and lemurs playing tag (though not with each other!), which counter, with their own vivid and capricious joy, the others suffused with grief. The point is clear: The animal world is just as full of heartfelt emotion as our own, if not as lucidly described and elaborated by its inhabitants.

This is heady stuff, and not just for animal lovers. Thus, it is disconcerting to consider the practical and moral implications of granting animals a substantial degree of feelings as well as intellect. For example, one cannot then help viewing carnivory - even when achieved via antiseptic, pre-packaged, supermarket cellophane-wrapped commodities - in a more skeptical light. And what of the argument, advanced most compellingly by ethicist and philosopher Peter Singer but discussed by Bekoff as well, that many of the “higher” animals, by virtue of their mental faculties (especially the capacity for self-awareness and suffering) deserve as much consideration as, say, severely retarded human beings, or certain stroke victims? Indeed, given their higher IQs, maybe certain animals warrant even more.

And finally, given what Bekoff and his assembled crew have to say, what - aside from claims that Homo sapiens partakes of the divine, by virtue of a unique “soul” - is left of the widespread insistence that human nature is somehow specially privileged? After all, if evolution teaches us anything, it is the simple, yet profound fact that We Are All Connected, all part of the same seamless organic web. Perhaps the truest measure of our humanity is the extent to which human beings come to act on that realization.

Buy Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions and Heart from Amazon United States of America Amazon.com  Amazon United Kingdom Amazon.co.uk  Amazon France Amazon.fr  Amazon Deutschland Amazon.de  Amazon Japan Amazon.co.jp Amazon Canada Amazon.ca

Buy The Smile of a Dolphin: Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions from Amazon United States of America Amazon.com  Amazon United Kingdom Amazon.co.uk  Amazon France Amazon.fr  Amazon Deutschland Amazon.de  Amazon Japan Amazon.co.jp Amazon Canada Amazon.ca

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© Nanelle Barash.

Nanelle R. Barash is a student of biology, among other things, at The Overlake School, in Redmond, Washington.


Barash, N. R. (2002). Mining the Minds of Animals. Human Nature Review. 2: 387-390.

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