Excerpt from Animal Wise by Virginia Morell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Animal Wise

The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures

by Virginia Morell

Animal Wise by Virginia Morell
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2013, 304 pages
    Mar 2014, 304 pages

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Christian Tubau

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Print Excerpt

Goodall nodded. "Yes, it doesn't make much sense to say they aren't thinking or don't have emotions," she said. "Most of us studying animals in the wild see things like this [Dilly's deception] all the time. But we've learned to be careful. We can say, 'If Dilly were a human, we would say she was acting deceitfully.' " To say that Dilly—or any animal—had what we would call subjective or personal experiences would be considered unscientifi c. Although some animals might have an inner, mental life, we had no way of asking them about it and so could not study it.

I asked Goodall how scientists could possibly get around this dilemma. The rules of the game seemed stacked in such a way as to forever preclude knowing what was in the mind of another creature. Goodall agreed but added that because so many researchers were witnessing similar behaviors (and in a variety of species, not just chimpanzees), she thought the science—the study of animal cognition and emotions—would change. "It has to," she said. "It's just a matter of time."

As I listened to Goodall, I realized how little I knew about animal cognition, how scientists defi ne it or study it. Why didn't scientists think it possible to study the thoughts and emotions of animals, particularly one as closely related to us as a chimpanzee? Weren't the chimpanzees (not to mention the baboons that lingered near the guesthouse) thinking? And if they weren't thinking, what were they doing? One look at the baboons, which sometimes hung on the guesthouse's grated windows while surveying my provisions, and I knew what was on their minds: They were waiting for me to make a mistake— to leave a window or the door unlatched—so they could dash inside and steal my food. Simple, common sense, and the baboons' crafty, calculating eyes told me as much. Why did scientists struggle to explain—or simply deny—what seemed so obvious to me?

In fact, we have been wrestling with the question of what goes on inside the minds of animals at least since the time of the Greek philosophers, and surely long before that.

After watching dilly's deception at Gombe, I'd left with many questions about what we know and don't know about animal minds. I added more questions as the magazines I most often write for, Science and National Geographic, sent me on assignments to join ethologists and biologists studying a wildlife lover's dream list of animals: elephants, lions and cheetahs, humpback whales, Ethiopian wolves, pink river dolphins, gelada baboons, howler monkeys, golden marmosets, poison dart frogs, and a good half-dozen species of bowerbirds. Each journey was like a crash course in animal behavior—in learning how to watch and think as the scientists do, with an open mind, patience, and an alertness to details.

The elephant watchers I joined in Kenya, for instance, recorded every ear flap of an elephant matriarch and her kin; those subtle movements held the clues to the decisions the elephants were making and wordlessly told the other elephants how they were feeling and what they were about to do.

And in Australia, scientists studying the greater bowerbirds mapped and tabulated the thousands of stones, glass shards, and other decorative bits the male birds use to ornament their bowers—which are like theatrical stages where the males sing and dance to attract females. I felt a surge of pity for the scientist as she knelt next to one bower and showed me the code she'd written on each little stone and piece of glass—there were hundreds, if not thousands, of these, and this was only one bower. Yet the dull, time-consuming work led to the discovery that the bowerbirds aren't just randomly setting out their piles of decorations but arranging them to create the illusion of perspective, a technique often used by artists when painting landscapes. For their illusions, the birds place the largest ornaments farthest away from the opening of their twiggy corridors and the smallest ones closest to it. Thus a female bowerbird standing inside the corridor and looking out would perceive all the items to be about the same size. The researchers proved that the males intentionally create this illusion by rearranging the birds' displays. The birds quickly restored every item to its proper place. Bowerbirds, the scientists concluded, are artists—the fi rst animal, other than humans, that is fully recognized as having an artistic sense.

Excerpted from Animal Wise by Virginia Morell. Copyright © 2013 by Virginia Morell. Excerpted by permission of Crown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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