Columbia University Press, 2016
hbk, 368 pp
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
In the 1970s, when pioneer ethologists Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Konrad Lorenz were intensively researching animal behaviour I was studying sociobiology and the zoologist/ sociobiologist Desmond Morris had recently published his first book The Naked Ape which went on to sell at least ten million copies. Like many others at that time, I was learning about the inherent behavioural patterns that we share with our non-human relatives, particularly the mammalian ones. As twigs from the same branch of the same family tree, we have the same instincts, the same repertoire of feelings, the same traits, and many of the same behavioural tendencies they do. We are all brothers and sisters under the skin. Learning about this biological substrate of human behaviour proved invaluable in my chosen career in psychology.
So when this author writes: I think that both humans and chimpanzees feel love; the only difference is that humans write sonnets about it. I think both humans and dolphins practice fair play, but only humans enact laws…humans and elephants experience grief, but only humans seek professional counselling to cope with it, I think “But doesn’t everybody realize that?” Isn’t everyone already fully aware, for example, that play is a training method for functioning as an adult? Is it not common knowledge that such qualities as fidelity, loyalty, morality and altruism are alive and well amongst our quadripedal relatives and that all the lines dividing us from them are very thin ones, mostly concerning our latterly developed facility for complex language, formal operational thinking and mathematics? (Which facility, along with the technical advantage of having opposable thumbs, gave birth to our current techno-civilization.)
Well maybe it is not such common knowledge any more. With our modern culture’s worsening disconnect from the rest of Nature, this is a very good moment to tell a new generation of readers about that biological substrate and bring it to the forefront of our thinking. And Lents’ compact and comprehensive book impresses me as an excellent tool for that purpose, covering as it does a wide range of related topics, from justice and morality to sex and love and from fear and grief to envy and jealousy. It is readable, interesting and straightforward and backed up with an extensive collection of scientific references.
Even though our language has enabled us to build this huge superstructure we call civilization, the foundation is wafer-thin. For example, just as Lents says, Even though human communication usually has grammar and is expressed as complete sentences, human thoughts do not and are not. We formulate ideas and words in our heads in a fairly unstructured way, probably not that different from the communication we observe in other primates…
So yes, the message needs to get out there again. This is one of a recent rash of books on the subject, resulting from an ever-increasing body of research confirming that, indeed we are ‘not so different.’ It’s essential to understand this so that we can shuck off the false sense of superiority that has enabled us to mess up whole ecosystems. But whereas back in the 1970s we were marvelling at the realization that ‘Oh, we are so like them!’ the emphasis is now ‘Oh, they are so like us!’ And that’s great. Only when we truly learn to acknowledge, respect and value other creatures as our kin will the world become be a kinder, safer, healthier and more peaceful place.