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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
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2013, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2014, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Christian Tubau

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Print Excerpt


Although there is no scale of nature and no Great Chain of Being, I've nevertheless organized my book beginning with animals whose brain anatomy is relatively simple and progressing to those that are more complex. I've not attempted to summarize everything that researchers now know about a given animal's cognition. Instead, I've selected specific discoveries that illustrate something new about animal minds and that show how scientists studying animal cognition go about their pursuit and why these researchers are drawn to their subjects. The book opens with a visit to an ant lab to illustrate how little neural tissue is required for impressive feats of cognitive processing; and it ends with my meetings with wolf and dog researchers, who are trying to tease apart why some of the cognitive abilities of our canine friends are more similar to those of humans than are those of our closest genetic cousins, the chimpanzees. I had also hoped to visit scientists investigating cats' mental talents, but unfortunately very few researchers have looked into the feline mind. Those I spoke with emphasized that cats are bright—they're quick observational learners, for instance—but because cats are independent creatures, getting them to repeat experiments (as is typically required in cognitive studies) is extraordinarily diffi cult. Immanuel Birmelin, an ethologist at the Society of Animal Behavior Research in Germany, explained how patient he'd had to be in order to run a test to see if cats can count: "One of the cats would do the test once in the morning—only!" he recalled. "Another would do it once in the afternoon—only!" It had taken him four years to show that cats can count to four. Nevertheless, I've added descriptions of studies about cats and how they think wherever possible.

As I wrote the book, I struggled with the use of pronouns, specifically whether to use "who" or "that" to identify an animal. It is standard practice to refer to an animal as "that" but I found myself unable to do this. Alex, the gray parrot, was not a "that"—a thing or an object—any more than was Frodo, the chimpanzee, or Betsy, the language-proficient smart dog. In the end, I settled for a halfway measure, using "who" when writing about known individual animals, and "that" for more general cases. It is not a perfect solution, but it does illustrate the larger question and issues we face as we begin to recognize fully the cognitive and emotional natures of animals.


If you're most interested in why our human minds are unique, you'll need to read a different book. I went in search of the minds of animals to better grasp how the other creatures around us perceive and understand the world. What do they think about and how do we know this? Why does it matter? I don't know if knowing more about animal minds will help improve the lives of humans, although this is usually the rationale scientists, particularly neuroscientists, must use to justify their research. But knowing more about the minds and emotions of other animals may help us do a better job of sharing the earth with our fellow creatures and may even open our minds to new ways of perceiving and thinking about our world.

We live at a time when far too many species are either going extinct or are in grave danger of doing so. Many species are dying or losing their homes and habitats, and the resources they need to survive, because of our actions. We are killing many others, from wild fish to elephants, in unsustainable numbers. As these animals disappear, so do their minds. It is a staggering loss, especially when we consider how unique the act of thinking is. We don't yet know of another planet that is as endowed with minds as is ours. There may be other planets with life (such a discovery would not surprise me), but as of now, ours is the only one we know about. Yet only in the last few decades have we seriously attempted to find out what is going on in the minds of our fellow creatures, and we've studied but a mere handful of the many millions of animal minds on our planet.

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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