Beyond Worlds: What Animals Think by Carl Safina (book review)

The belief that only humans are sentient is slowly being dispelled today. It might not be the same form of intelligence that we have but the sense of family or clan support can be just as strong, as well as a variety of emotional and intelligent mindsets that compare to our own. Carl Safina’s book, ‘Beyond Worlds: What Animals Think’, gives a guide to elephants, birds, primates, wolves and whales, giving insight by the field zoologists who study them in the wild as well as notes on other species.


As elephant watcher Cynthia Moss points out, ‘Elephants experience joy. It might not be human joy. But it is joy.’ Those lines will sink in as you read on because it also means that apart from being able to think, animals have an emotional make-up as good as ours. Unlike humans, animal clans, like elephants, are matriarch ran and should the lady at the top die, a lot of knowledge like migrating to other food or drink sources can be lost. I was wondering if Safina would cover what happened when a matriarch elephant died and it looks like the family tends to split or join other families if they aren’t old enough to take charge. It also re-enforces the argument that poachers must be stopped from killing matriarchs because they carry the knowledge of the family.

I should point out that Safina shows that brain size has nothing to do with intelligence but more to do with memory. Oddly, the study of animal behaviour has been going a little less than a century with the significant people, like Jane Goodall, still going strong. A lot of it is dismissing various myths associated with animals which shows how these ingrain into the human psyche.

Safina makes the point that although the earthworm might be lacking in nerve cells, it shares the same kinds of motivations of humans. What he doesn’t say is that maybe we use the same basic structure and probably less derived from all that other brain matter that is added on top. After all, why rebuild an existing wheel?

A lot of what is said about elephants will make you think, especially about their grieving process because they also apply a period of mourning to humans they meet regularly and liked who have died out in the bush. If they consider us sentient, I think it’s about time we do the same for them. More so now as the ivory trade is escalating again. With demonstrable means of communicating information and knowledge, the more I read this book, the more it becomes apparent that we have other sentient species on this planet but not recognising them as such.

One very interesting fact that came out of this section of the book is that many Chinese believe that elephants aren’t killed for their tusks, but are picked from already dead carcases. You would think a little more education on the truth of this in China would put an end to this trade. If China carries such a myth, you have to wonder about other nations.

The section mostly devoted to wolves shows why they are so much a pack animal and yet can still have disputes and even forgive occasionally providing the pecking order is maintained. Like with elephants, knowledge is passed down from the top and disarray when any of the alphas are killed. The shows of loyalty, picking sides and disharmony are things we can all relate to. No wonder that both wolf and human saw kindred spirits and bonded.

Oddly, Safina places a couple chapters on bird and primate behaviour patterns in this section rather than on their own. These days, we are less surprised by tool-using behaviour but it took a long while to accept that we weren’t the only ones doing it that made us different to other animals.

One area which I can dispute with Safina is why primates aren’t very keen on music. In the wild, they need to listen to the music of the jungle and anything else is an unnecessary distraction.

Chimpanzees, in general, tend not to be fully co-operative with each other unless there is something in it for themselves. The exception is the bonobos, who got separated from other chimps and developed differently and where sex not war achieved peace. Their physical attributes changed, too, although I do have to wonder how much inbreeding happened when first isolated. I suspect this chapter will have you thinking about the similar diversity in our own species. Emotion-wise, humans seem to slip between these two types on a regular basis.

Safina’s exploration of self when looking in a mirror covers many species. As he points out, there is some interpretation in all of this. There are no tells like scent and such which can throw them occasionally and mostly because it’s not always something they see in real life. With other tests, there’s often been too much made of comparison to how we interpret things rather than how a different species does.

One animal Safina doesn’t neglect is humans. One aspect that differs radically from other species is the ability to not only imagine but to believe in things that are not there physically. Remember your ‘invisible friend’ when young or even deities fall under this category and calls into question our rationality as being flawless. As our ability to imagine makes us different to other species but it has pros and cons. For someone like me who uses my imagination a lot, this is very telling but since childhood, I tend to also differentiate a lot of it as mental exercises and not necessarily as day-to-day reality. This will definitely make you think and I hope Safina explores this further in another book.

Then examination of the cetaceans, that is whales and dolphins, highlights their ability to learn, teach their off-spring and have fun, all things attributed to intelligence. I never knew before that orcas (the name killer whales is a misjudged name because they don’t actually kill humans) have several different species with residents staying around one particular area and the far more deadlier and quieter transients who are always on the move and each have radically different diets. The residents, like the bonobos, tend to like mass orgies.

The cetaceans studies should make you think. Very rarely have any ever killed humans and, if anything, the tally is more towards them rescuing our species in the wild. Oddly, we also seem to have gone too much the other way. Safina points out that although now it is illegal to whistle or even play music to whales, unlike primates, they do actually like it and, if they don’t, then they swim away. That doesn’t mean they should have continuous music and it looks like they like classical music. If anything, it appears that they have a better ethical system than ourselves. You be nice to them and they won’t avoid you.

This book will seriously make you think and although explained well, is actually a depthy read. Part of the reason for my interest is that if we ever encounter extra-terrestrial life, we need to understand the different levels of intelligence on our own planet and have a lot healthier respect for it than we currently have. I was so appalled by the poaching of elephants that I even wrote a story, coming on-line later this month showing a different justice.

You can usually tell from the length of some of my reviews how much I learn from some books. The length of this review should affirm this here as well. The arguments Safina gives for intelligence behaviour between other species and how they even interact with us does tend to show that if we are looking for other intelligence life-forms in the universe, then we really ought to do a better job understanding it on this planet first. Essential reading.

GF Willmetts

September 2016

(pub: Souvenir Press. 461 page indexed hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-28564-346-8)

check out website: www.souvenir

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