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Tuesday, 21 July 2015 20:40

Beyond Words: A New Book About What Animals Think and Feel

Written by  Marc Bekoff

During the past months I've received many books about the cognitive and emotional lives of nonhuman animals (animals). I've reviewed many of them, and the latest, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (the Kindle edition can be found here) by award-winning scientist and writer Carl Safina, is one of the best and I'd like simply to inform readers about this excellent book that contains numerous facts and compelling stories about a wide array of the fascinating animals with whom we share our magnificent planet.

wolvesThe scope of Dr. Safina's book is staggering. The book's description reads, "I wanted to know what they were experiencing, and why to us they feel so compelling, and so-close. This time I allowed myself to ask them the question that for a scientist was forbidden fruit: Who are you?" Weaving decades of field observations with exciting new discoveries about the brain, Carl Safina's landmark book offers an intimate view of animal behavior to challenge the fixed boundary between humans and nonhuman animals. In Beyond Words, readers travel to Amboseli National Park in the threatened landscape of Kenya and witness struggling elephant families work out how to survive poaching and drought, then to Yellowstone National Park to observe wolves sort out the aftermath of one pack's personal tragedy, and finally plunge into the astonishingly peaceful society of killer whales living in the crystalline waters of the Pacific Northwest. Beyond Words brings forth powerful and illuminating insight into the unique personalities of animals through extraordinary stories of animal joy, grief, jealousy, anger, and love. The similarity between human and nonhuman consciousness, self-awareness, and empathy calls us to re-evaluate how we interact with animals. Wise, passionate, and eye-opening at every turn, Beyond Words is ultimately a graceful examination of humanity's place in the world."

You can read an excerpt from Beyond Words about Cynthia Moss's long-time experiences studying elephants here, and an interview with Dr. Safina here. And, here are a few snippets that I hope will motivate you to read this outstanding book. In his discussion of whether or not other animals have a theory of mind -- "the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own" -- he notes that what some scientists take to be negative data suggesting they don't, Dr. Safina writes, "It's not that dogs don't have a theory of mind; it's that humans often miss the point. Faced with a lying human, dogs refused to choose either bucket one-fifth of the time. They understood at some level that, in nontechnical terms, something was up, that the humans were messing with them." (page 253) Dr. Safina's main point is that many of the experiments humans devise to answer questions about the cognitive capacities of other animals really cannot answer the questions at hand.

Along these lines Dr. Safina notes, "Chimps have mainly a theory of chimp mind ... dolphins mainly of dolphin mind. Humans often experience difficulty understanding even human needs and predicting other people's actions. And humans who assume that other animals are not even conscious -- or who ignore their capacity for conscious experience -- show how faulty our theory-of-mind talents are." (page 268) He follows up on the general theme of "diverse minds" in a chapter that rightly stresses that we must pay close attention to what animals need to be able to do, think, and feel by understanding who they are, as members of a specific species. There are also informed discussions of animal personalities -- "how deep and widespread the phenomenon of personality is" (page 394), and how learning about the behavior of other animals "helps us understand ourselves." (page 411).

I highly recommend Beyond Words and I hope it will enjoy a broad and global audience. It covers numerous different animals and topics and is well referenced and an easy read. Dr. Safina's book truly is a gem -- extremely thoughtful and important and most timely as almost daily we are learning more and more about the highly evolved and sophisticated cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of an incredible array of other animals. In many ways the scope and quality of Beyond Words is beyond words. I read it in proof, and as I reread it now, I'm still learning from Dr. Safina's wise words about the fascinating lives of the numerous and diverse animals with whom we share our magnificent planet and with whom we must strive to coexist peacefully.


World Animal Net has re-posted this article with the permission of Marc Bekoff, because we felt that this is a book that our audience should be aware of and which holds many benefits for them. This article originally appeared on Psychology Today

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Why dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence. The Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published.

Photo credit: Wolf Park Indiana, by Serge Melki, used under CC BY 2.0

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