Top positive review
on January 19, 2014
This is Kilham’s sequel to his 2002 book Among the Bears. Both books are based on observations of New Hampshire black bears which he released into the wild after hand-rearing them from infancy. Rearing included frequent walks in the woods where cubs learned to cope with a wide range of challenges including finding diverse foods and socializing with wild bears. Kilham has continued following some individuals for over a decade, monitoring their interactions with fellow foundlings as well as with bears which have been wild all their lives.
In keeping with this book’s title, Kilham has positioned himself far out on five limbs by claiming that:
(1) Hand rearing bears, mentoring their transition to life in the wilds, and continuing to socialize with them for years thereafter, reveals aspects of their social behavior and cognitive abilities that would not otherwise be detected.
(2) The cognitive abilities of bears are roughly on a par with those of apes.
(3) Much bear behavior which has conventionally been considered instinctive (e.g., body language) can actually be controlled cognitively.
(4) Black bears have a much more sophisticated social system than has been previously recognized. They have “a well-developed system of justice” (p. xx) and reconciliation. “Bears, it turns out, are a lot like humans. They form alliances with strangers, they make calculations about relative costs and benefits, they lay down rules and punish those who break them. They trade based on a clear system of reciprocity. They communicate using equal parts emotion, intention, and dependence on context – a combination that is essential for communication between strangers and in fact forms the basis for language” (p. xvii).
(5) Whereas conventional theories on the evolution of communication posit that signaling will be most complex in highly social species (e.g., wolves or chimpanzees) which have diverse interactions with well-known group members, Kilham posits just the opposite: that cooperating with familiar individuals is much less demanding of communication [diplomatic?] skills than is frequently cooperating with strangers, where the potential for aggression is much higher, as are the costs of misunderstandings. Early humans also had to frequently cope with strangers. So bear social systems might provide critical insights into human social evolution. (Any person who has tried to cope with a foreign culture – human or animal – can understand this concept.)
• A sub-theme of this book is that some so-called human disabilities (e.g., dyslexia or autism) may in fact remove blockages to uncommon but invaluable abilities such as visualization as precise as computer graphics. Biodiversity is as important mentally as genetically.
Kilham’s field methods are something like a blend of those practiced by Steve Stringham (author of When Bears Whisper, Do You Listen? and several other books) and Terry DeBruyn (author of Walking With Bears), except that the questions Kilham asks have been more focused on parallels between bears and primates, an issue first raised in the 1970’s by pioneering ethologist Gordon Burghardt (Author of The Genesis of Animal Play and editor of The Cognitive Animal) and by Stringham. Although Kilham’s second and third limbs were also pioneered by other investigators – e.g., Burghardt, Stringham, and Else Poulsen (author of Smiling Bears) – Kilham goes a bit farther out on each limb. He goes much farther out on his fourth limb, based even more on novel interpretation than on novel data. He has the fifth limb pretty much to himself.
Even if his ideas on human evolution were the book’s only topic, it would be well worth reading. One might argue that he clutches at straws to show parallels between bears, apes and humans. But it is sometimes only by clutching that one discovers which straws link to deep truths. Furthermore, there is wealth of information on bear social behavior and communication. His discussions of bear scent marking and vocalizations are the most advanced in print – a valuable addition to the insights shared in his first book.
His central theme can be paraphrased as follows: In order to exploit widely scattered food sources, bears form social contracts. If bear A allows B to feed on A’s turf, B should reciprocate and allow A to feed on B’s turf. Any bear B that does not allow reciprocity will (a) be punished quickly by any higher ranking bear (A1, A2, …) that was denied access, and B will be denied access to the resources of other bears it cheated (A1, A2, …). Reciprocal sharing selects for the ability to recognize cheating (unfairness), weigh it, and punish it with an appropriate (i.e., fair) degree of severity.
Because bears act as individuals or in small groups of family members or transient companions, conflicts are settled between individuals through ritualized aggression and cooperation, rather than between groups that war with one another, as in chimpanzees. KIlham suggests that humans probably evolved in social systems more like that of black bears than like those of apes -- a suggestion that has no anthropological backing so far as I know.
In these and other ways, Kilham’s book is provocative. Provocation does two things: (1) it urges us to review prior observations, make new ones aimed at verifying points he raised, and rethink conventional interpretations; and (2) it makes us hungry to understand the methods, observations and logic by which the author justifies discarding conventional thinking.
From the perspective of a bear researcher with decades of experience: The strengths of Kilham's methodology are (a) that he has an immense amount of field time in close association with black bears, and (b) that he did not start his research trying to "test" any abstract theory.
The weaknesses of his methodology are (a) that early in his research he started grasping for parallels between humans and bears, and (b) when he offers an interpretation of his observations, he does not address alternative interpretations and explain his justification for dismissing them. For instance, why speculate that bears control onset of estrus cognitively, rather than through well-known physiological mechanisms? In some cases this seems to be a consequence of limited knowledge of a large body of relevant scientific literature (e.g., he doesn't cite ANY scientific literature, even that of the pioneering bear researchers listed above). In other cases he is overly defensive in relying on "his" method. This brings to mind the old saying that "If your only tool is a hammer, all problems are nails." Kilham needs to quit defending use of his hammer and master all available tools. Once that happens, he will be better able to cull the chaff from his wheat and produce some truly remarkable research.