Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel - Carl Safina


Trying to figure out what animals are thinking and what emotions they feel is such a tricky business that scientists have come to see it as a landmine capable of destroying their reputations and careers for good. Attribute too much logic or awareness to a non-human species, and you just might become a laughingstock within the scientific community forever. Carl Safina took that risk in 2015 in Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, a 411-page book in which he emphasizes that, “Speculation about animals’ mental experiences happens to be the main quest of this book. The tricky task ahead: to go only where evidence, logic, and science lead. And to get it right.” 


It’s hard to read Beyond Words without coming away with the impression that Safina did exactly that. What fascinates me most about Safina’s work, however, is how he came into the study wanting to learn two things: how animals are like humans and what observing them can teach us about ourselves. Instead, what he ended up walking away with was just the opposite: a better understanding of how humans are like animals and what being human can teach us about animals. The more he learned, and the more he thought about his goal, Safina realized:


I’d somehow assumed that my quest was to let the animals show how much they are like us. My task now — a much harder task, a much deeper task — would be to endeavor to see who animals simply are — like us or not.


Beyond Words is divided into a prologue, four parts, and a two-page epilogue. Part One is dedicated to elephants, Part Two to wolves, Part Three (the shortest section) to several different species, and Part Four to whales. Each section details the observations that Safina made during the time he spent working with small groups of scientists who have dedicated their entire lives to tracking and learning about a single non-human species. The big surprise about being around people like these scientists is how deeply they relate to individuals within the animal populations they have grown so familiar with. Often, it seems that the researchers have developed genuinely deep relationships with individual elephants, wolves, whales, and other animals. They have become friends in every sense of the word.


At first glance, it may sound as if these scientists may have strayed into dangerous territory. But as they observe their favored species, the “evidence, logic, and science” begin to pile up so overwhelmingly that it is difficult to disagree with what they say. Readers of Beyond Words will experience a wide range of emotions that includes skepticism, awe, surprise, anger, despair, and hope for the future.


Bottom Line: Beyond Words is an eye-opener, a book that reminds us of where our own species fits into the world, along with just how much damage we have done to other species during our ascension to becoming the most dominant animal on the planet. The ultimate takeaway for me, personally, is that being the most dominant species on the planet does not at all mean that we are the most “humane” species on the planet. 


Books like Beyond Words have the power to rock your world. As one of Carl Safina’s neighbors (J.P. Badkin) put it: “If you’re not careful, you can learn something new every day.” Well, here’s your chance. 


Carl Safina


16 comments:

  1. Wolves, whales and elephants. Sounds like a good read to me. :)

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    1. I enjoyed the sections on wolves and elephants, but I was most touched by the one on whales...and most angered, too.

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  2. I love stories like this but, I worry whether if I need to worry about any terrible things happening to animals in this one?

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    1. Because this one is nonfiction, I found our treatment of some of these animals to be horrifying, especially when it comes to whales and dolphins.

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  3. That sounds excellent, even better than I had imagined. I must bump this one up higher on my TBR list.

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    1. I really think this one will be right down your alley, Jeane. I'd love to know what you think of it because you read so many "animal books" on a regular basis.

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  4. Examples of unusual animal friendships and birds, fish, and in one recent article, a bee that won't leave the human who saved it--has certainly increased my interest in this area. White Wolf Pack is one of my favorite animal sites.

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    1. I was much more a skeptic when I started this one, Jen, than I am now. I'm going to take a closer look at the site you recommend...thanks.

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  5. I might not have been interested in this a few years ago but something's changed and now I would be. I'll see if my library has it.

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    1. I've always wondered about animals and just how aware they are of us and those around them, but this one of the better jobs of convincing me that humans are just way too arrogant to "get" animals.

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  6. This sounds so interesting! I can find any print or ebook copies at my library, but was happy to find the audio available through hoopla. Hope to listen soon.

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    1. I'll really be curious to hear what reading this one via an audiobook version is like. It's over 400 pages long, so it must be a pretty long audiobook. I hope you enjoy it.

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  7. This seems like a very important book, perhaps an antidote to human hubris. The world has much to communicate to us if we will only listen. This brings to mind Richard Powers' novel Overstory which dealt with the amazing interactive community of trees, also our ancient brothers.

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    1. That Richard Powers novel sounds really good...new to me, so I'll take a closer look at it.

      Human beings are tainted by ego and arrogance when it comes to our relationships with other animals. This book had some eye-opening things to say about that and our relationship with specific species. I think it should have been an important book, but I wonder if it turned out that way.

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  8. I am an animal nut hook, line, and sinker. Whether they be elephants, dogs, or dolphins ... or whatever. Animals seem to think & feel much more than we ever give them credit for ...

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    1. I'm convinced of that. They are so emotionally intuitive that it astounds me sometimes. You would like this book...a lot.

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