53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2012
The book is a well written interweaving of scientific, philosophical, and ethical reflections about animals combined with stories and interviews about events and experiments related to whether or not animals think and feel. I like the way that the author shows a kind of methodological bias that predisposes the researcher to not believing that animals can think and feel, a criterion that would make it hard to prove that we can think and feel (similar to the behaviorist arguments of B. F. Skinner proposed in BEYOND FREEDOM AND DIGNITY). The author further goes into several select experiments to do prove, to me, that animals can think and feel. There are some choice quotes seeded throughout the book and are designed to provoke some thinking of our own about the subject, like (page 50):
"Intelligent circuitry can be assembled in any brain, that's my big belief," Schuster said, where he did several of his archerfish studies. (He's since moved to Bayreuth.) "It's not limited to those animals with large brains and many neurons," he said. "if evolution requires it [this kind of intelligent circuitry], it will be assembled--even with a small number of neurons."
And (page 96):
"People have wondered about this for centuries," Berg said. In captivity, he added, parrots do not simply react when humans speak to them (as dogs, cats, chimpanzees, and other animals do); they also articulate responses, almost as if talking back, and sometimes even use words in the correct context; as Alex did. "Those kinds of vocalizations absolutely send a shiver up the spine of cognitive scientists," Berg said, because they suggest that parrots have some innate understanding of the purpose and functions of words as sounds that convey meaning. When a pet parrot uses the words 'hello', 'good night', or others appropriately it is probably not communicating about sex or violence. It is calling--and, most importantly, apparently meaning--"hello" and "good night"."
Each main chapter focuses on one animal, fish and pain, elephants and memory, dolphins and intelligence (there are two chapters on dolphins), and rats and laughter.
The author uses the narrative approach to writing that I like, taking the relevant details of the experiment and weaving them into the story, some parts revealed in discusses, in quotes, and material coming from learned sources (like quoting Darwin's thoughts on the subject and thinking about how his thoughts fit into new experiments and research that did not exist in Darwin's time). Although the author states her bias that animals do think and feel (though why and how is another interesting story), she gives enough data for people to make their own conclusions. The scientists that the author meets are described in very human terms so that it is easy to empathize with them and to feel their excitement at what they are discovering.
The book has an extensive set of notes and an extensive bibliography for further research. The table of contents is well organized so that it is relatively easy to find subjects and themes. The edition that I have does not have an index, but I suspect the final one will.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in animal ethics who wonders if we are the only species of animal that does think and feel, or wonders how do you go about researching this issue in a way that does not metaphysically presuppose a yes or no answer (the approach of science is to verify a hypothesis by designing experiments where some possible observation can confirm or not confirm the hypothesis). I can see this book as a useful one for an college class discussion on animal ethics. By itself, it does not go into animal ethics very much, but it touches upon many issues that are relevant to this subject. How we see animals, whether we see them as sentient beings that love, nurture, and protect their children or as merely cellular clumps with neurological reflexes programmed to respond to the environment in rigid robotic ways (aka "no soul" worthy of moral consideration) is directly related to this issue and this book offers some very relevant material to fuel this kind of discussion.
I enjoyed reading the book, because it feels "convergent" with other books that I have read and with personal experiences I have had with animals. My feeling is that when something is on track and accurate, it tends to confirm and be confirmed by other books and experiences that are formed in the same way, with the same "scientific curiosity." I am not surprised at the implied conclusion that animals do think and feel, but I am surprised at some of the things discovered that tend to confirm this. I am also happy that the author writes well, in narrative style, because it makes what could have been presented as dull research into something enjoyable to read. It also makes the information easier to remember, since a story is a good way of giving otherwise isolated facts a kind of cohesion that allows them to be remembered as whole packet. I wish more of my college books had this.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Do animal have minds? Are they aware of themselves as entities? Do they love? Grieve? Are lower-order animals capable of learning, or do they just operate on instinct? How much of our thinking and emotions do we share with our fellow creatures, and how much is uniquely human? Those who have loved furry companions tend to one extreme; those not fortunate enough to have had a relationship with a non-human companion tend to the other and may regard most animals as little more than a mobile bundle of instincts. In Animal Wise, science and nature writer Virginia Morell follows the work of dedicated scientists trying to learn the truth about the inner lives of animals from ants to dolphins and chimps.
Each chapter is devoted to the work on a particular species. It begins with ants and runs through fish, parrotlets, parrots, rats (who laugh!), elephants, dolphins (both wild and captive), chimpanzees and other primates, and finally dogs and wolves. Interestingly, Morell, who lives with both cats and dogs, notes that little work has been done on cognition in cats, an omission that I would infer might derive from the innate nature of the subjects as much as a lack of interest.
There are many different things to enjoy in Animal Wise. The animal behavior she documents is delightful and often touching, whether it be archer fish bringing down their prey by squirting them with jets of water or dolphins helping injured members of their species. Equally fascinating are Morell's descriptions of the extremes to which the scientists must go to carry out their work. For example, she recounts the almost bizarrely painstaking process whereby Dr. Nigel Franks and his teams paint tiny dots on the bodies of ants so that they can identify individuals in the course of their study. The conditions that the scientists are willing to endure are also impressive, such as Zsofia Viranyi, an Austrian scientist who is introduced as she emerges after sleeping overnight with six wolf pups in a barn. On a more philosophical level we see the scientists' struggles to control obvious emotional connections with their subjects to maintain an objective point of view.
As is true in many areas of science, there is a great deal we do not yet know about animal minds, abilities, and emotions. Much work still needs to be done, and Morell is smart enough not to try to tie up loose ends with tidy but unwarranted conclusions. If there is one general message that emerges from the totality of the work described in the book, it is, as she says in the epilogue, "we now know that we live in a world of sentient beings, not one of stimulus-response machines [Now]we need to ask: `How should we treat these other emotional, thinking creatures?'"
22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
This review, for some reason, is very hard for me to write. The book kind of missed the mark for me, and I cannot figure out why that is; I think I must have been looking for something different than it offered.
Some of the chapters were very interesting. I really enjoyed the one on the birds, and also the one on the elephants and the rats. The other chapters were just really hard for me to get through, and some were actually boring.
From the writeup on this book, ''ants teach, earthworms make decisions, rats love to be tickled, and chimps grieve . . .dogs have thousand word vocabularies and that birds practice songs in their sleep? That crows improvise tools, blue jays plan ahead, and moths remember living as caterpillars?'' I just thought this was going to be a very exciting read. Instead we get blue jays planning ahead is them hiding nuts? And everyone knows squirrels hide away nuts; how is this something different? I was expecting I guess plans that I had never thought of animals as having, instead of something that didn't seem unusual at all. And dogs having thousand word vocabularies was apparently only specially trained dogs. I thought she meant all dogs, and was going to show things about all dogs, not specially trained ones. Now the crows improvising tools was TOTALLY cool! I had NO idea about that and it was very mind opening. I was sorry there wasn't more information on them and what else they might be capable of. As far as the rats being tickled, it was kind of strange, but was interesting and written in a more engaging way than some of the other chapters. I was rather upset though about rats having their feet shocked. What kind of effect does this have on the hearts of the poor little things? I guess the heart wasn't part of the experiments though. I really enjoyed the chapter on the elephants, and would like to have seen more information than was given on them.
And I do have to say that the sexual bit about the dolphin Peter and the trainer Howe were rather a shock. In fact, I could have gone all year without reading about that. That whole ''experiment'' seemed highly questionable to me. Is this something routinely done in animal experiments? I haven't read about that many of them, but have never heard of anything like that before (thank goodness)!
I thought this book was going to have lots of great science showing lots of things I didn't know about. Instead, about the only things really worth learning to me was the crows and their tools, and Alex the Parrot and the things he could do (I had never heard of him before). Was rather surprised there was not a chapter on squirrels, with all the things we know they are capable of, and cats, many of which are very smart.
Don't know whether to recommend this or not. On one hand, there were a few really interesting things in it. On the other hand, is it really worth slogging through the boring parts?
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2013
Not long ago, it was taboo in science circles to claim that animal have minds. But the burgeoning field of animal cognition is mounting a full-on challenge to the notion of an evolutionary hierarchy with humans at the top. Morell, a science writer for National Geographic and Science magazines, traveled around the world interviewing animal scientists and observing their research projects on everything from architecturally minded rock ants and marksmen-like archerfish to brainy birds, laughing rats, grieving elephants, scheming dolphins, loyal dogs, and quick-witted chimpanzees.
She found cutting-edge scientists who not only regard animals as sentient beings, but refer to their study subjects as trusted colleagues. Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa in Kyoto, for example, has set up his lab so that when the chimpanzees "come to work" each morning, they enter on elevated catwalks and sit higher than the humans, which makes them feel more comfortable. He cannot understand why humans feel so threatened by his discovery that chimpanzees are capable of holding much more information in immediate memory than can we humans.
"I really do not understand this need for us always to be superior in all domains. Or to be so separate, so unique from ever other animal. We are not. We are not plants; we are members of the animal kingdom."
Animal researchers are realizing that not only do all animals have individual personalities, but some - such as chimpanzees and dolphins - even have cultures. This engaging and thought-provoking book can be read on many levels. It is highly informative while also being quite entertaining. But on a deeper level, it probes the moral dimensions of science.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
I have to say that I absolutely loved this book - both for substance and in delivery. It felt to me as though Morell was a tour guide taking us on her journey with her, as she talked to and worked with scientists around the world who are investigating animal intelligence and emotion. This lent the book a feeling of immediacy and authenticity that kept me fully engaged throughout. It also has good apparatus - in my advanced reader copy, the footnotes do not correspond to particular pages, but they are plentiful, and her "further reading" list looks like a good source of future inquiry into the topic.
The contents themselves are both intellectually and emotionally engaging. They aren't always cheerful (not going to look at dolphin society the same way ever again), but they do serve to make the animal kingdom seem far more intricately connected than many would suppose. We have tons of companionship on this planet, and, while they are very different than us, they are not alien. It's worth our time to understand them and to make sure that we are the best neighbors we can be.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
The book looks at several different scientists working in the area of understanding animal communication, all of whom have made great strides in discovering a greater range of complexity among various animal populations. These explanations of chimps, parrots and even a species of parakeet that appear to engage in complex communication are presented in a very factual manner - the writer explicitly honors the reticence of the scientists to actually call it "language". It is clear that she understands the rules of the scientific community, because what she discovers is that this distinction is more or less semantic. All the evidence points to the fact that many animals possess a much more complex level of thought than we have been led to believe. Can this evidence be considered "sentience"? The bottom line is that it all depends on what you mean by "sentience".
Overall this is a very interesting and entertaining book that will likely change the way you think about animal intelligence. It does appear that Hollywood's tendency to anthropomorphise animals to the degree that they can talk and interact with us is not based on a pure fantasy. Rather it is a product of our long association with various species and our intuitive understanding that their mental processes and communication strategies have many things in common with our own. This book builds on that and will leave you wanting to know more.
When I got this book I was hoping for something a little more scientifically oriented. The author is a science writer, not an academic, so what she does is talk to scientists about their research into animal intelligence and "translate" that for the general public. As a social scientist interested in human consciousness and cognition, I was hoping for a more academic take on the subject. That's the only reason I give it four stars instead of five.
32 of 45 people found the following review helpful
As a life long animal lover, I was drawn to this book. Beautifully published, it covers an unexpected mix of creatures, from the expected and intelligent species (parrots, dogs, elephants and dolphins) to the unexpected (rats, ants and fish). Love cats, so yeah I was very disappointed that felines were totally excluded from this book. Considering the increasing popularity of cats, my question is - why not? Also, not one animal picture included, except for the front cover. Photographs of the specific animals discussed would be a more than welcome inclusion. This is a proof copy so maybe some will be included when this is published?
Mixed feelings about what's included here because much involves animals in captivity, whether they be in a lab environment or in an entertainment for people situation. Obviously, animals are more easily studied in captivity, but being an oversensitive, animal rights type person, I found these scenes disturbing. The idea of all these parrots living their entire lives in a lab, albeit with much human interaction, is not something I willingly wrap my mind around. The famous African Grey parrot, Alex, is discussed at some length and, while his story is incredible, it barely comes alive here. Alex had acquired an very impressive understanding of language, colors and concepts. However, his story has been covered with so much more energy and insight elsewhere.
Overall, a dry read, and a bit of a chore to get through. That's due to its scientific approach, and therein lies the problem. People like me react toward animals emotionally, and scientists approach animals clinically. Recommended for the scientifically minded only.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2014
Excellent book with profound insights and extensive research in an easily readable and clear style. If you wonder how animals think and their reasoning developed, this book is the best I've read in an attempt to answer those questions.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Virginia Morell's newest book, "Animal Wise," was a satisfying read for me because she hit all my vulnerable places. Science and scientists are of big interest to me. So too are writers who understand them, write intelligently about them, and who make the effort to get right into the murky depths of their scientific explorations. Morell does all that plus is able to present her findings in layman's terms, easy to understand, and with "aha" moments on every page. Her insightful views into the animals being studied--their emotions, cognition, and intelligence--sealed the deal with me.
Scientists have been subjected to much stereotypical yammering through the years. They have been viewed as socially isolated, unbalanced, unkempt, senseless, and having a tendency towards viewing all things in black and white, relying totally on proven data as they stumble through life. They are considered impractical and seem to spend large amounts of money on projects that appear frivolous without providing much intrinsic value.
Virginia Morell is sensitive to these perceptions and uses a gentle hand to set aside eccentricity as she reports on these scientists' findings. She is neither critical nor condescending. She clearly disregards any negativity directed at them, embracing their dedication. She loves what they do, thinks it's important, and reports on it with great empathy and clarity. It's apparent there is mutual admiration here because of the extraordinary access she has to their work.
In this remarkable report we read about experiments with ants, fish, birds, rats, elephants, chimpanzees, and wolves. We learn about their ability to think, teach, communicate, emote, play, and react to stress. We find out about their brains, their intelligence, and their ability to teach and learn. We delve into the stigma against declaring that "lesser animals" have traits that many consider unique to human beings. We sense, through Morell's insightful probing, that these dedicated scientists are reluctant to be too bold in declaring startling findings because of that bias. They seem content in continuing their experimental work in an effort to add a larger and less contentious foundation to their amazing findings.
I heartily recommend this book to animal lovers, those interested in natural behavior, the human-animal bond, the mechanics of scientific exploration, life in far-off places and splendid writing talent. The rest of you also need to read the book simply because of the amazing information found within its pages,
Schuyler T Wallace
Author of TIN LIZARD TALES
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Anyone who has lived with animals knows that they have inner lives that under the best circumstances, humans can only begin to grasp. Unfortunately, for decades, scientists have been unconvinced, instead relegating animal behavior to mindless instinct and nothing more. In Animal Wise, science writer Virgina Morell deftly challenges that notion (scientists can be as blinkered and narrow-minded as anyone else), presenting research by more enlightened investigators that animals ranging from ants, fish and rats to parrots, chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins and dogs have far more capacity to reason than the "experts" previously thought and in many instances experience emotions too.
Well, duh, you may say if, like me, you've lived with animals all your life. But the evidence she describes is fascinating, and I guarantee there are more than a few surprises in store for you in this book, even if you think you're highly attuned to animals. (Like did you know that rats laugh?)
Animal Wise grew out of an article Morell wrote for National Geographic, and it takes the reader around the world as she visits scientists studying parrotlets and elephants in Africa, wolves in Europe, ants in England, chimps in Japan, rats in Washington State, dogs in Hungary, and dolphins in Baltimore, Hawaii and Australia, covering research with both domesticated or captive animals and those in the wild. The scientists she introduces, many of whom struggled for years to challenge the prevailing dogma, are almost as interesting as their subjects. Morell is an excellent and skillful writer, presenting the science in terms that the lay reader can readily grasp and keeping you reading long past bedtime.
If you're already convinced of animals' sophisticated cognition and communication, then Animal Wise will only strengthen your conviction. If you're unconvinced, then it's apt to challenge your assumptions about animals as "lesser" beings than humans. Either way, you'll probably never look at them in quite the same way.
Five enthusiastic stars. I'll be recommending it to many, many people.