Several themes emerged while reading Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise (recently issued in paperback from Broadway Books), beyond the obvious and overarching message—that humans are animals rather than occupying a separate and exalted plane of existence (the book emphasizes similarities rather than differences in the minds of humans and nonhumans).
Many of the animal researchers whose work is chronicled in this book stumbled into their careers. Neuroscientist Stefan Schuster’s studies into decision-making and imitation among archerfish arose from a “mistake,” when an aquarium he ordered for home amusement was too large, so he brought it to his lab. Parrot researcher Karl Berg majored in business and economics until he took on ornithology course “for fun.” Ethologist Adam Miklosi, known for his canine cognitive studies, initially thought that trying to get inside the minds of dogs was a terrible, crazy idea. Psychologist Louis Herman was with rats when he fell into his “unintended career” as an dolphin cognition expert.
They often describe their subjects as “colleagues” or collaborators. Some describe being deeply affected by a single animal. For Irene Pepperberg, it was Alex, the African gray parrot she famously studied for three decades. For Steve Ross, director of Lincoln Park Zoo’s Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, it was a chimpanzee named Drew.
This engaging volume by science writer Morell grew out of assignments for Science and National Geographic which took her around the globe to interview experts studying elephants, chimpanzees, monkeys, whales, lions, and more. This crash course in animal behavior led to her asking questions about the mental and emotional lives of animals.
Animal lovers will of course be drawn to the spectrum of species discussed, but the human cast of characters is equally intriguing. Take Nigel Franks, the ant researcher who painstakingly paints his subjects so he can differentiate them from one another, or neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who spends his days happily tickling rats.
From a primatological perspective, of particular interest are findings that show chimpanzees outperform humans at a specific type of memory test) test than humans, and that gorillas (often thought of as less intelligent than other apes) are better on touch-screen cognitive challenges than chimps. (Not surprisingly, chimpanzees’ poor impulse control affects their score.) A fascinating chapter on canine intelligence proposes that, in some areas, dogs’ cognitive abilities are more humanlike than that of chimps.
Animal enthusiasts may find some of the case studies chronicled here already familiar, but the collection of interviews and the authors’ insights add up to a wholly satisfying read.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the Blogging for Books program, the receipt of which did not affect the opinions stated herein.