Review of “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel” by Carl Safina

This is an excellent compendium of animal behavioral studies, although I was already aware of almost all of them before. But for those who have not read much ethology, the findings in this book are laid out in a comprehensive, accessible, and interesting way. As for new information, most of that relates to the accelerated pace at which humans are killing off other species. And it is very depressing data indeed.

The evidence amassed attesting to the way animals feel and think make the numbers all the more horrific. For example, in the last ten years, poachers have killed one hundred thousand African elephants. From an estimated ten million elephants in the early 1900s, there are only some 400,000 in Africa today, with another 30,000 to 40,000 killed every year – an elephant every fifteen minutes! To give some specific examples, Kenya’s elephant population is down 90 percent, Uganda’s 85 percent, the Congo is down 90 percent, and Sierra Leone has no elephants left. These elephants are mostly killed for ivory, with the proceeds often going to finance terrorist armies, such as Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army in Uganda, Sudan’s Janjaweed, and possibly even Al Qaeda’s Al Shabab wing.

The book goes on to document depredation of other species, while also explaining how and why the effects of such violence are so disruptive to animal families and communities. With elephants, for instance, the biggest ivory comes from the oldest family members, and so the leadership of the family units, along with knowledge about how best to survive, is destroyed along with the elephant. Youngsters are particularly affected.

The author discusses the many sounds made by animals that humans can hear, as well as the fact that they make many sounds that are outside of our hearing range. (Elephants, for example, make sounds that span ten octaves, but humans cannot hear the low frequencies without special equipment. Further, they even have special receptors in their feet to pick up rumbles over long distances, often from several miles away.) He notes that just because we can’t understand their “languages” doesn’t mean they don’t have any. (Think of how animals might interpret the sounds we make!) Nor does the fact that they don’t verbalize feelings mean they are without them. As he argues persuasively, genetically we aren’t very different from other animals. It is unrealistic to conclude that thinking and feeling arose without evolution. He observes that each characteristic of higher animals reflects a slight tweak on something older:

“Everything humans do and possess came from somewhere. Before humans could be assembled, evolution needed to have most of the parts in stock, and those parts were developed for earlier models. We inherited them.”

Not just language, but such evolutionary success-conferring behaviors like the ability to form deep social bonds developed through time: “parental care, satisfaction, friendship, compassion, grief – all began their journey in pre-human beings.”

Safina reviews data on the behavior of all kinds of animals including lions, crows, wolves, and whales, inter alia. In each case, he provides an abundance of evidence that these animals experience consciousness, but adds that it is in the interest of greedy humans to deny this fact. He wants to wake us up however to “how other animals experience the lives they so energetically and so determinedly cling to.” He does a great job, concluding with an argument not just for human civilization, but for humane civilization, for all life on earth:

“The greatest story is that all life is one. The world will be saved not be calculation but by compassion. I wish everyone understood this. It has at times seemed to me that killer whales and elephants are among the few who do.”

But you cannot come away from this book without also understanding this simple concept. I wish it were required reading for all of earth’s citizens.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2015

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5 Responses to Review of “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel” by Carl Safina

  1. Diane says:

    I’m always attracted to books like this that teach me something. Your high rating makes this one a must read — thanks Jill

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    After the killing of Cecil the Lion, this sounds like a very relevant book.

  3. Beth F says:

    I was going to say exactly what Kathy did.

  4. Oh how sad this sounds — but important. I read an article recently that talked about conservationists injecting pink die into elephant tusks: doesn’t hurt the elephant, but renders the ivory useless to poachers. I thought that was a really interesting idea, but I wondered how wide their reach would be able to be, and whether it would be ultimately very effective or not.

  5. Rachel says:

    I read a book several years ago called When Elephants Weep that sounds similar. It’s so sad what humans are capable of.

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