What We Read On Our Summer Vacation: “Beyond Words,” by Carl Safina

Two paws up from Linus

Two paws up from Linus

Joining us for today’s round table discussion of Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel are resident literary critics Linus and Jenny Linsky.

CM: Thank you both for reading this book and offering us your thoughts. What did you think? I have a few criticisms, but overall I thought it was well done.

L: I really feel the need to point out that there were way too few cats in this book.

JL: And chickens!

L: And it was way too dog-centric, especially with his claim that dogs are the only species that domesticated themselves. We cats certainly didn’t allow you humans to domesticate us; we chose to be here.

CM: True, but the author chose to focus on three main species — elephants, wolves, and killer whales — because of their highly social nature and recognized intelligence (and, arguably, their popularity with the human reading audience). And to be fair, he does discuss lions and tigers to a certain extent. Unfortunately there is no space dedicated to chickens.

L: Yes, the lion and tiger parts were fascinating — I especially liked the discussions of tigers taking revenge on the humans who tried to kill them —  but let’s return to that word you just used: recognized. Safina’s point is that humans willfully and/or obliviously don’t recognize intelligent behavior in other species; they either expect intelligent behavior and thought to look like human behavior and thought, or don’t believe what they see because it would challenge many assumptions they have about the way the world works.

JL: Perhaps this just goes to what you said about choosing species to focus on

Jenny pauses from her busy acorn snorfing schedule to endorse this book.

Jenny pauses from her busy acorn snorfing schedule to endorse this book.

because of their popularity with humans, but I do feel he gives short shrift to avian intelligence. He does discuss corvids (those loud fellows manage to horn their way into everything) and birds’ brain size-to-body size ratio. However, I think his argument — namely, that humans aren’t paying enough attention — would have been stronger if he had chosen a non-mammalian species as an example. I think people aren’t surprised by intelligence and compassion in animals like wolves, especially since we see many of the behaviors in dogs —

L: — when we allow dogs to behave intelligently and haven’t overbred the intelligence out of them (unlike with cats) —

JL: — yes, good point, Linus; too many dogs are either engineered or allowed to be stupid or ill these days — but what I was saying is that discussing examples of compassion, social intelligence, problem solving, etc., in non-mammals would underscore his point. As Safina mentions a number of times, the evolutionary links between humans and other mammals aren’t all that far back in the past, and there are so many commonalities, like body structure, fetal development, and that weird hair that you all have. It’s a lot easier to read body language when the body you’re observing is closely related to your own. But it is possible to observe the workings of a mind that’s arguably more foreign to humans — like those of birds or reptiles — and including some of that would have strengthened his argument that intelligence is all over the animal kingdom if you pay attention and are willing to look at things from a non-human point of view.

L: I agree; towards the end of the book he describes the wonderful behavior of two giant tortoises who are kept as pets and they sound smart and hilarious — like us, Jenny. I would love to hang out with them and learn more about them. Coop Mistress, you said you had a few criticisms?

CM: My primary criticism is with the “gee whiz” style of presenting the information that predominates the first part of the book. Perhaps it’s because I’m a human who really tries to pay attention to the animal consciousness around me so his argument is not a bolt from the blue; I read the book because I was interested in the details he discusses for species with which I am less familiar. For the mass market audience who is interested in animals and conservation but who may not have given animal consciousness much thought, this style might be helpful, but I think that the book could have accomplished its goals without it. But that’s a minor point. My other criticism was yours, Jenny, about having chosen a non-mammalian species as one of his “main” animals. Again, that might have been an editorial decision so that the book would appeal to a broader audience, but I do think presenting a non-mammalian consciousness would have made the book that much stronger. So overall, paws and wings up?

JL and L: Paws and wings up!


One thought on “What We Read On Our Summer Vacation: “Beyond Words,” by Carl Safina

  1. Wow, Coopmistress, very interesting. Have some breed of dogs really had intelligence bred out of them? Is that why Jack can’t find a toy thrown at him if it goes over his head? And please tell Linus that I think cats are very nicely domesticated and I am sure they did it without human interference. This was really educational. Thank you!


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