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Beyond Words What Animals Think and Feel Hardcover – January 1, 2015
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Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel suggests that we have been asking the wrong questions about animal intelligence. From our human-centric perspective, we have asked: How are other animals are like us? Safina, award winning author and ecologist, has travelled extensively to observe animal behaviors in the wild. In this book, he focuses on elephants in Kenya, wolves in parts of the United States and Canada, before moving on in section three to articulate a concise and stirringly poetic argument for animal intelligence beyond our current understanding. In Kenya, an awe-inspiring range of complex elephant behaviors, relationships and communication inspired him to ask, rather: What are they like? What do they feel? What is it like to be them? What do they mean when they communicate? He argues that without a sense humility and curious kinship with other beings, we have no access to what he so powerfully describes as a word that “sparkles with silent sentiments,” much of it beyond our human range of detection.
In section three, Safina outlines some of his pet peeves about current research and methodology, leading him to ask, “Could there really be just one intelligence among us or among species?” (p. 340) In other words, if we can’t even define human intelligence, how can we propose to reduce animal intelligence to a standard series of tests? Ever since Descartes denied the sentience of other beings, objective empiricism insisted that we resist anthropomorphism so devotedly that science has ignored what is most obvious; animals think, feel, love, grieve, mourn, celebrate, play, and suffer, not as we do, but more importantly, in their own way. They are individuals with personalities just as humans are individuals with personalities.
Safina points to our sharp scientific division between human brains and other brains as our great hubristic folly. He explains that just as we are closely related to animals physically, we can also assume we are related to them mentally. We are conscious by virtue of the same complex processes, and we are all, as he puts it, on one vast “continuum.” He elaborates on how closely related we are to other animals; that our sentience is part of that continuous family of diverse forms of sentience.
Safina concludes his wonderful book with an admission to previously thinking that people who spoke of dogs or other animals as “family” or “friends” as silly. He explains that after years of research and experience with many animals, he feels it would be “silly not to.” His book is one of a very few that truly recognize our planet’s diverse life as a continuous, sentient whole. He offers this perspective not by way of abstraction, but through years of research, relationships, and living in the field seeking to understand that many animals, such as elephants and wolves form complex bonds and social relationships, communicate in a sensory range we cannot even perceive. They can be silly, grieve and celebrate, and love with a depth that we cannot begin to truly fathom. Safina’s thorough and skillfully crafted book invites us on a journey into the world of elephant, wolf, whale, and other animal experiences, compelling us to understand them on their own terms, as selves with meaningful lives that matter as much as human lives do.
My own experience as an environmental educator confirms for me how crucial it is that Safina tells his enlightening and poignant stories. Unless humanity grows out of its human exceptionalism and awakens to the sentience and intelligence of other species, we will never become as intelligent a species as we could be, and we will continue to make the same destructive mistakes. Safina’s epilogue holds this sage warning, “Understanding other animals is not a boutique endeavor. Failure will speed their end and a bankrupting of our world.” (p. 411). Truer words were never spoken.
I have read a lot about elephants and I still learned an immense amount from this detail and compelling account. I knew only a little about wolves and was chilled to find out how much their family groups and their dynamics match that of humans. Plus, killer whales? It stuns me to the core what is being done to these highly sentient mammals. I can't stop thinking about this book.
A monumentally important book. Humanity is only as good as the level of kindness it shows to animals. At this point, humanity is failing dramatically.