In the 1980s, astrophysicist and science-fiction author David Brin wrote the Uplift series, in which humans elevate chimpanzees and dolphins to near-human intelligence. The idea of chimps conducting scientific research or dolphins piloting starships is somewhat ridiculous, but perhaps not as ridiculous as we once thought. As biologist Carl Safina shows in Beyond Words, many animals have complex emotional and intellectual lives. Safina invites readers to view animals as individuals who have their own “personalities” (“who, not what”). The chimps and dolphins in Beyond Words are even more interesting than anything in the Uplift novels – and they happen to be real!
I’d read Jeffrey Moussaieff Mason and Susan McCarthy’s When Elephants Weep years ago, as well as Cynthia Moss’ books about the Amboseli elephants, so was already on board with the idea that many animals have complex social lives. So, to some extent, I was probably not Safina’s target audience as he spends a considerable amount of time trying to convince readers that animals are individuals. Nevertheless, I found myself in awe at all that we’d learned over the past few decades about animal behavior. Safina does an excellent job conveying the “personality” of individual animals, noting how they react to humans and putting their emotional responses into words that we can understand.
Beyond Words is divided into four parts. Three sections focus on elephants, wolves (including dogs), and dolphins (particularly orcas). Researchers have spent decades studying individual behavior amongst these animal groups, so Safina can tell the stories of individual animals in a way that he simply couldn’t with giant squid or even many lesser primates. Reading about orcas who interacted with different humans differently based on the human’s personality was humbling in that they seem to have mastered social skills I and many other people lack.
Although Beyond Words isn’t limited to these charismatic megafauna, I would have preferred if the book had spent less time with the “usual suspects.” Throughout the book, Safina brings up examples from throughout the animal kingdom, including chimps, parrots, and turtles. I understand that we have gained much more insight into the lives of elephants and dogs due to proximity, but these are also the “easy cases.” Even most hardened skeptics would admit that elephants and whales have some measure of intelligence and individuality. What truly shocked me was the possibility that even nematodes might. But perhaps that will have to wait for future research.
The fourth section of Beyond Words discusses the lab research and neuroscience of animal behavior. Safina spends less time with what we know than about how little we know (and how we often know less than we think we do). As he notes, an elephant is an elephant and has elephant intelligence, not human intelligence, yet most existing scientific tests for animal intelligence are based on human intelligence. This undoubtedly biases the tests against finding animal intelligence. For example, dogs rely more on scent than on vision, so the “mirror test” might not work for a dog because dogs care relatively little about how they appear in a mirror. On the other hand, cetaceans have echolocation abilities that we can barely even imagine. If dolphins were to test human intelligence based on our sense of echolocation, we’d all fail (except for Daredevil).
In looking at animals, Beyond Words also provides insight into humanity. Humans frequently view rationality as one of the main features that differentiates us from animals. Chimps don’t have a John Locke or Alan Turing. Yet, as Safina points out, many animals are quite rational. They focus on eating, sleeping, and mating, while trying to conserve energy. Animals might play, but ultimately their actions are based on empirical observation (even if they do not have the means to properly interpret their observations). On the other hand, humans are distinguished by their irrationality. Humans regularly spurn wealth, food, or sex in order to pursue their passions. So far as we know, we are the only species that dreams about spaceships or kills others in the name of an invisible god.
With a few exceptions, such as Vernor Vinge’s Fire in the Deep and Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, science fiction has struggled to create aliens with truly alien mindsets. The aliens in Star Trek are usually reflections – or stereotypes – of human cultures. Books like Beyond Words could provide science fiction with valuable new insights into how nonhuman minds work. On the other hand, Beyond Words reveals extraordinary similarity in the way a diverse range of animals think; perhaps sentience comes in only a few varieties after all.
I’d recommend Beyond Words for anybody who has felt an emotional bond with a pet dog, stared into the eyes of an elephant, or just wondered what a bird might be thinking. I especially recommend it to people who haven’t experienced any of those sensations, for those are the ones who most need this book.
[I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review]