Henry Holt & Co (2015)


ISBN: 978-0-8050-9888-4


Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain


A newborn infant knows no language. S/he learns it through months and years of observation, listening and imitating the speech patterns of adults. We learn not only to use words but to interpret gesture, tone, inflection, facial expression, body language and a host of other signals. A human baby soon learns ‘Mama’ ‘Papa’ and – with a wave – ‘Bye-bye’. A young vervet monkey quickly learns the signal, ‘eagle!’ and its sub-text, ‘get down out of that tree NOW!’

For centuries, we arrogant humans assumed that our fellow creatures had no language and, since they did not share our particular way of communicating, no minds either. We knew they must have some ways of sharing information, but beyond that we assumed that they were incapable of doing things like reasoning, planning, joking, lying etc. We even believed them incapable of emotions like grief, love, jealousy, compassion and so on. How wrong we were!

Science cannot state a fact to be true without ‘proof.’ So, since we have never been able to prove a definitive ‘theory of mind’ for any creature other than ourselves, the official story is still that human beings are the only thinking, feeling species. Which, of course, is utter rubbish, as most of us realize, especially those who share space with a dog.

However, this outdated, anthropocentric attitude seems to be fading, thanks to all the researchers who spend hour after patient hour out in the field, watching, listening, observing and learning. We know, now, that bees tell stories by dancing, that cetaceans ‘see’ through echo-location rather than vision, that although elephant language is mostly outside our range of hearing, its vocabulary is vast. We are finally realizing that there is not just one form of intelligence, but many, and that our own, much-vaunted abilities to speak in words and to conceptualise in abstract ways are merely one form of specialization among many. As author Carl Safina says: Different brains emphasize different abilities, enabling living beings to excel at exploiting different circumstances. There is room and reason here for respectful appreciation, for a sharing of the world. 

In order to produce this big, fact-filled, anecdote-rich book, Safina travelled to Kenya to meet a group of ethologists and wildlife researchers who, between them, have spent several decades getting to know all the local elephants. He also went to the USA’s Yellowstone National Park to study wolves, and to the Pacific North West to learn about killer whales. In these places, too, he found dedicated folk  who have devoted their entire lives to understanding more about these other creatures—beings so different from us, and from each other, and yet all with their own distinct patterns of communication that can be as complex and finely nuanced as our own.

Through his detailed descriptions of their daily lives and habits, their family and societal relationships and all the other interactions they have with each other and the world around them, the elephants, the wolves, the whales—and various other animals whose ways and languages are also touched on in the course of discussion—come alive for us. We weep with the bereaved elephant as she mourns, rejoice with the dolphin when he is happy, laugh with the youngsters as they play tricks on each other. We shudder when we are reminded of the horrors our own species has inflicted on these animals over decades and centuries of non-understanding. (And we marvel at their forgiveness, which we patently do not deserve.) We come to appreciate them, not as categories, like ‘wolf’, ‘whale’, or  ‘elephant’ but as individuals, every bit as varied in their personalities, preoccupations and peculiarities as we humans are. Why should we be surprised?

This is seriously important work. As Safina says, Understanding other animals is not a boutique endeavour. Failure will speed their end and the bankrupting of our world.

So when we meet someone from another species, be they mammal, bird, fish or whoever, the question to ask is not “what are you?” but “who are you? What are you thinking/feeling/saying? How can you and I communicate?” Genetically, we are all made of the same materials, just variations on a theme. You, the other, are not an ‘it’ but a ‘someone.’ You may live in the ocean whereas I live on dry land or you may have a trunk instead of a nose, but if I watch you long enough, listen to you carefully enough, open my mind and throw away my preconceptions, eventually, my questions will be answered.