Virginia Morell Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Virginia Morell
Photo: Michael McRae

Virginia Morell

An interview with Virginia Morell

Virginia Morell discusses how an interview with Jane Goodall morphed into the book, Animal Wise, if there is an ethical component to animals' feelings, and which authors have influenced her science writing the most.

Why did you become a science writer?

As a child, I loved reading and spending time in nature. My parents were great outdoor enthusiasts, and as a family we spent weekends and every summer vacation camping, hiking and exploring the mountains and deserts of the western states. I was soon a devoted reader of field guides, learning all I could about wildlife, plants, and geology. I loved reading because I could imagine myself as the characters in my books and being carried away by the words into their lives. I loved watching birds and animals for much the same reason. Who were they? How did they live their lives? I wrote short, imaginary tales about their lives. While these were fictional tales, they were my first efforts to explain the things in the world that I thought and cared about. I actually did not set out to become a science writer; as a child I didn't realize there was such a career. I only discovered it in college, a sudden illumination: here was a way to combine all that I loved–reading, exploring the wild, meeting unusual, eccentric characters (human and animal), and sharing all of this through my writing.

What authors have influenced you both as a reader and a science writer?

I've been deeply influenced by John McPhee. His books are models for explaining a field of science, and drawing readers to arcane subjects via the scientists. Evan Connell's masterful Son of the Morning Star has also affected my writing. I've read and re-read his work and would love to think I'm able to give readers somewhat similar vivid descriptions of the scientists I met for Animal Wise. I'm also drawn as a reader and writer to Diane Ackerman, Jonathan Weiner, Annie Dillard, Grete Ehrlich, Francis Parkman, Ian Frazier, and Charles Darwin (especially his Voyage of the Beagle).

You've written about Africa's natural treasures, about the Nile, and about the Leakey family. What brought you to the idea of animal minds?

For my biography about the fossil-hunting Leakey family, I traveled to Tanzania to interview Jane Goodall in 1987 at Gombe Stream National Park, where she studies wild chimpanzees. I joined Jane and her research assistants on their chimp-watching forays, and found myself surprised and captivated by how similar the chimpanzees' behaviors, facial expressions, and gestures were to our own. The chimpanzees were clearly thinking, as well as experiencing and expressing emotions—yet Jane could not say this about them. She had to use indirect expressions: "The young chimpanzee behaved 'as if' she were deceiving him." There was a bias at the time against animals having minds, and being capable of thinking or feeling emotions, especially positive ones, such as love. That trip, my discussions with Jane about animal minds, and my own experiences with my dogs and cats led me to investigate the science of animal cognition.

What is your favorite story or part of Animal Wise and why?

I have many favorite stories in Animal Wise. I loved meeting Alex the African Gray Parrot, a parrot that the scientist Irene Pepperberg had taught to mimic the sounds of over 100 English words. Alex understood that these sounds were labels—for example, he knew that the sound "yellow" referred to the color yellow. Irene could then ask him questions about his understanding of the world. It was remarkable to watch her ask these questions, and to listen to his answers. Alex would open his beak and the words would appear: "Yel-low." or "Co-lor." or "Shape." When one of his companion parrots was struggling to pronounce a word, Alex interrupted him and said, "Talk clearly! Talk clearly!" I realized then Alex truly had a mind of his own.

Is there an ethical component to animal minds? Apology? Regret? Shame?

Many animal species have rules that govern how to behave and how to treat others in their social groups. They may not have apologies in the same way that we do; but they have ways to ask others for forgiveness if they transgress. Sometimes, this is expressed as submission (think of a dog rolling on his back and exposing his throat to a rival). A chimpanzee seeking forgiveness from another will grimace and extend her hand, palm-up—just as we do when begging. Regarding regret, it might seem difficult to ask if another animal feels regret, but Japanese scientists showed through a 2011 experiment that Rhesus monkeys regret making poor choices. To confirm their discovery, the researchers also recorded the neuronal activity of the monkeys during the test. The regions of the brain that are known to be associated with memory and regret in humans were also activated in the "regretful" monkeys. As for shame, Darwin considered "shame" to be an emotion found only in humans, and I don't know of any studies that have convincingly shown this in another species. Guilt, however, is a different matter. Darwin observed that primates, dogs, and wolves all exhibit the types of behaviors that are associated with guilt: averting one's gaze and keeping one's head down. Guilty behaviors help reinforce social bonds by reducing conflict and encouraging tolerance. Most dog owners think that their dogs feel guilty if they do something wrong. Scientists have devised clever tests for "dog guilt," but the results so far are mixed. Maybe the best answer comes from one of the great observers of animal behavior, Konrad Lorenz, who wrote that we can "assume with certainty that the [dog's guilty look] hides a guilty conscience."

Is your dog intelligent? How? Can you give us examples?

Yes, my dog Buck is intelligent. He is an American Working Farm Collie. Buck protects the jays we feed every morning. I think he knows all the birds; collies have been shown to know all the sheep in their herds, and the birds are Buck's herd. One day a few summers ago, my husband and I noticed Buck in our lower garden, standing and protecting something. We went to investigate and found him standing over one of the jays. It was on the ground with its wings outstretched. My husband picked up the bird, and after he looked for injuries without result let the bird go and it fly away. The next morning, Buck brought the bird—now dead—inside and laid it at my husband's feet. It was such a touching moment, and we've often wondered at Buck's decision to guard the bird and then to bring its dead body to us. He did all of this independently, without us telling him—which absolutely fascinates dog cognition researchers. We called the County's Disease Vector people about the jay, and they stopped by—and using rubber gloves put the bird in a container with dry ice. They examined it in their lab, and discovered that it had died from West Nile virus. So, thanks to Buck, we helped track the spread of this disease in our county!

You've brought us an incredible book. What's next?

I have several book projects in mind, but haven't settled on the next one yet.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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