Sunday, November 1, 2015

Animal Wise (Virginia Morell)

Animal Wise
Virginia Morell
Broadway Books
Nonfiction, Science
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The family dog that seems to know when its "people" are upset, the dolphin that appears to act to save a drowning human, the elephants that visit the bones of their dead... people throughout the centuries have wondered about animal minds, reporting observations hinting at surprising abilities and perceptions. For many years, modern science dismissed the notion that any species beyond Homo Sapiens experienced thoughts or emotions, or even processed sensations like pleasure or pain, viewing them as organic machines hardwired by instinct and genetics. Since the early twenty-first century, many scientific breakthroughs have challenged this notion, with new evidence that humans are not the only thinking, feeling creatures on this planet. The author visits scientists in the field and in laboratories around the world as they explore the intellectual and emotional worlds of all manner of animals, from fish and ants to dolphins and chimpanzees.

REVIEW: I often see articles praising the purity of the modern scientific process, how purely objective and free of prejudice these highly-trained professionals are in pursuit of truth and knowledge... articles that conveniently omit the very human blind spots such as the ones revealed here, where even the mere whisper of the idea that animals might think or feel would be met with harsh professional criticism and dismissal until fairly recently, prejudices carried over from nonscientific cultural ideas and popular philosophies, not to mention the very species-centric idea that, since animals cannot speak human languages to explain their worlds, it's pointless to even ask questions about their perceptions. Even so prominent and respected a researcher as Jane Goodall faced opposition when speaking of chimpanzees as individuals and not subjects. (The idea of animal minds and intelligence wasn't necessarily helped by some enthusiastic researchers such as John C. Lilly, who in the 1960's declared that dolphins spoke a distinct language and carried oral histories dating back millions of years... "evidence" possibly influenced by the LSD he occasionally dosed his subjects with. These claims, unfortunately, overshadowed other, legitimate research and discoveries, tainting the subject matter for decades to come.) New thinking and experiments, not to mention brain-scanning techniques and other technological advances, have allowed us to finally begin asking those questions, and the results are little short of astonishing. From ants little larger than a printed hyphen who appear capable of teaching to the surprisingly complex social lives of wild dolphins, from the remarkable long-term memories of elephant matriarchs to the genetic roots of joy as demonstrated by lab rats, even to the mental and behavioral changes that transformed the wary wolf into today's dogs, Morell explores all manner of unexpected discoveries, as well as offering insights into the people stepping up to ask the questions so long ignored by the scientific world. Each one raises more questions about our own place in the natural world: for instance, with new evidence of how fish experience stress and pain, perhaps new methods of fish farming are called for, to benefit both the animal and the humans who rely on them for food.
There are, predictably, still those who resist the idea of animals as anything more than self-replicating automatons - that humans alone have been blessed with self-awareness and emotions. The more that is revealed about the wonders of the animal minds, the more proud we humans should be to consider ourselves their kin... and the more seriously we should take our responsibilities, as the species whose actions seem to have the greatest planetary impact.

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Last Ape Standing (Chip Walter) - My Review

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