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Animal Wise

image of Kim Tingley
A growing body of research is proving that intelligent life has been with us all along: crawling under rocks, nesting in trees, and swimming offshore.

Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures

Virginia Morell

Crown, 291 pp., $26

Humans have always dreamed of discovering an intelligence equal to our own -- elsewhere in the universe. When we invented the radio we beamed it skyward, hoping to flag down sympathetic extraterrestrials. Meanwhile, here on Earth, we have largely -- even pointedly -- ignored the minds of the creatures with which (not, tellingly, with whom) we share the planet. Until recently, "the prevailing notion held that animals are more like zombies or robotic machines" than sentient beings, Virginia Morell writes in Animal Wise. Just two or three decades ago, it was heresy for any scientist to suggest that a creature other than Homo might have "subjective or personal experiences."

But now, a growing body of research is proving that intelligent life has been with us all along: crawling under rocks, nesting in trees, and swimming offshore. Morell, a frequent contributor to Science and National Geographic, visits laboratories and field sites to illuminate what scientists are uncovering about how animals large and small think. All the while she challenges our species' view of itself as the most advanced and important form of life. "Evolution is not linear," she writes, and thus "we are not the pinnacle of evolution." Rather, each species has adapted to a particular ecological niche (or died trying). If our role were to live in the ocean and guzzle fish, for instance, we might happily trade our brains for the teeth and muscle of a great white shark. As for our supposedly superior minds, Morell encounters a chimpanzee -- our closest genetic ancestor -- that can memorize a string of numbers more rapidly than most people, including her.

Touring the front lines of animal cognition research, Morell visits researchers who study how fish learn, whether birds have language, why rats laugh, and how dolphins construct their social lives. Animal Wise begins with one scientist's controversial discovery that members of a rock-dwelling ant species tutor one another on how to get from an old nest to a new one -- potentially the first example of a nonhuman animal "teaching." Each chapter that follows is the story of a reporting trip to visit a scientist in situ, and on every page nonhuman neurons achieve amazing feats of reasoning, ingenuity, and even empathy: a parrot understands the abstract concept of zero; elephants show compassion toward their dying kin.

The pleasure of these revelations tempts us to turn the page. But what's missing is an overarching argument, a stronger authorial presence pushing beyond the facts to draw surprising conclusions. While Morell notes that the definitions of teaching, thinking, and consciousness are still up for debate, she doesn't profile any researchers who clash over them and so might complicate one another's findings. And though she raises impossible questions in passing, she doesn't inspire us to grapple with them: What is it like to be an ant, or an elephant, or a fish? If we could converse with other species, as so many of the scientists in Animal Wise wish they could, what would we say?

Morell argues that we owe the other denizens of Earth greater consideration in light of the fact that they, like us, can make decisions, express preferences, and feel pain, including, in several cases, what seems to be emotional anguish. But her inquiry never builds to a climax in which we're forced to reckon fully with the existential implications of what we've learned. A book that purports to think about thinking shies away in the end from imagining how knowing the minds of other species might transform the way in which we experience the world.

image of Kim Tingley
Kim Tingley is a regular contributor to OnEarth and the New York Times Magazine. She has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and in 2012 received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, given annually to six female writers who dem... READ MORE >