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Notes from a Small Planet: Pity for Living Creatures

September 25, 2015

by Lawrence Bush

Discussed in this essay: Beyond Words, What Animals Think and Feel, by Carl Safina. Henry Holt and Company, 2015, 461 pages.

Sorry Bear smallMORE THAN A CENTURY AGO, the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem wrote a short story, "Pity for Living Creatures," narrated by a sensitive, pre-adolescent boy who is always getting thrashed by adults and by his peers because he protests their cruelty and heedlessness towards animals. The cat who gets beaten, the dog who gets scalded, the bird who is captured and killed, the baby girl killed in a pogrom — each is cause for the boy's compassion to awaken, and each awakening earns him punishment from those who believe, as his mother does, "No crying, no sinning.... One has to forget. Forget...”

Carl Safina's marvelous new book about animal sentience and intelligence, Beyond Words, adds scientific insight and rich observational evidence to compassion of the kind displayed by Sholem Aleichem, in an effort to convince readers, once and for all, not to forget: that our planet is filled to the brim not only with 7+ billion human beings, each a cousin to one another, but with millions more thinking and feeling mammals who are, likewise, our cousins. "Living diversity is astonishing," Safina writes,

but as you peel layers of difference, you encounter similarities more stunning.... We are essentially the same, merely molded by long [evolutionary] experience into different outer shapes for coping with different outer surroundings, and wired inside for special talents and abilities. But beneath the skin, kin.

Yet we treat non-humans as "other," as unfeeling beasts, as "natural resources" for our exploitation, or as old furniture waiting to be junked.

SAFINA TAKES US into intimate encounters with three species to make his points: elephants, wolves, and killer whales, aka orcas. They are all highly social and observably intelligent creatures, whose individuality and capacity for empathy, happiness, and misery can only be denied by people whose sense of human specialness requires a denial of the specialness of every other animal species.

Elephants communicate with one another in a range of rumbling sounds easily as diverse as a human being's laughs, sighs, moans, and conversational grunts. They form matriarchal families and packs, and they know one another as individuals throughout their lives (which last for up to six or seven decades). They protect one another, including one another's children and elders, and stream from their facial glands in empathy for each another's emotional experiences. They make and utilize "at least six types of tools," writes Safina, and they strategize constantly about how best to exploit their environment. "Watch elephants communicating," he notes, "and they seem masters of subtlety. But we have no nuanced vocabulary for translation. We have only clumsy categorizations.... [T]hey're talking, perhaps even calling each other by name. We don't yet know what they're saying." But their "interactions show that they understand what they're saying, whether it expresses fine-grained information, such as 'Let's go,' or simply conveys emotional intensity, what we might understand as tone of voice."

Wolves hunt with relentless, strategic cooperation while also measuring out their relationships with one another like politicians in the coatroom. They have stunningly different personalities, and apply themselves to different jobs in the pack. Including reckoning with rival predators:

One day, four... coyotes were at the half-eaten carcass of an elk the wolves had killed when a single female wolf sauntered in. This is usually the cue for any coyotes to make way for the wolf. Instead, one of the coyotes went to the wolf with a wagging tail, as if inviting play — then gave the wolf a sharp bite, as if to say, 'Four of us, and we're not budging!'

In response, one day, Safina continues, the dominant wolf of the pack "left her den, bringing her whole pack with her, and headed toward the coyote den."

When they got within sight of the den... she seemed to somehow signal her pack to sit and watch... [then] approached the den and, sure enough, the coyotes started orbiting and harrying her, snarling, teeth bared, heads down, hackles up, closing in. [The wolf] ignored them.... She dug into their den. One by one, she pulled out each of their pups. One by one, she shook it dead. And in front of the coyotes, she ate all their pups.... [then] turned and trotted back toward her waiting family as if to say, 'And that's how it's done.'

Then there are the killer whales, who navigate their water-world with sonar equipment that is more than equal to human beings' visual equipment. Orcas have individual "click" names by which they address one another; they form family-based communities that endure for decades; they teach skills to their children, not just by being observed but by conceiving lessons. They also comprehend subtle human gestures and will initiate games with humans they know — and they have never, not once, been known to attack a human being in the wild, for some inexplicable reason, says Safina, yet they have also rescued seafaring people from danger in many instances.

Like what you're reading?All three of these species are highly social, which likely accounts for their sharp intelligence: The weighing and shaping of relationships favors, in evolutionary terms, the expanding of brain power and communication ability. All three of them have been subjected to centuries of human misunderstanding and extermination campaigns. "At the dawn of the Roman Empire," Safina writes, "elephants thoroughly inhabited Africa."

From Mediterranean shores to the Cape of Good Hope and from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, except for the bleakest lozenge of the Sahara, elephants trod. Imagine, now, a giant eraser with an ivory grip. By a thousand years ago, elephants had already been wiped from North Africa. During the 1800s, southern Africa's elephants were splintered and isolated, and most pocketed populations got finished off in several wipes. East Africa's coastal elephants were swiped, too. Amazing disgrace. By 1900, the animal that never forgets was forgotten by most children born in West Africa. The 1970s and '80s brought the perfect storm of rising human densities, increasingly deadly weapons, escalating ivory prices, widening international markets, and worsening governments.... From an estimated ten million elephants in the early 1900s, to 400,000 or so and counting, today.

SAFINA'S BOOK blends such mournful notes with a constant sense of awakening and wonder. He does not, in fact, confine himself to elephants, wolves, and orcas, but reports on the amazing capacities and obviously individual personalities of ravens and other birds, domestic dogs, even land tortoises. A deeply experienced naturalist, he interjects himself only sparingly and modestly, instead allowing a variety of field researchers and scientists to do the talking. And he does it all with a scientist's sense of skepticism — he is a MacArthur fellow with a Ph.D in ecology and co-chairs the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University — extending this skepticism, however, not only to metaphysical or supernatural interpretations of animal behavior, but to scientific stupidity and obtuseness. For example, he writes, "Somehow the mirror test [in which "a smudge of makeup is surreptitiously placed" on creatures' faces before they are shown a mirror image of themselves; "if an animal does not wipe at the smudge, they are deemed to lack self-awareness and the capacity for self-recognition"] has become the standard for determining whether an animal has 'self-awareness.'" He objects:

That's silly.... When an individual 'fails' to recognize their reflection, all it proves is that they don't understand reflection. Because only a few species recognize themselves in a reflection, and because that's been confused with lack of self-awareness, science writers give the impression that self-awareness is rare. In reality, it could hardly be more commonplace. All day and everywhere, life and death continually depend on high-performance self-awareness and razor-sharp distinctions between self, environment, and others. And all without a mirror.

Beyond Words lends itself to out-loud reading, so fascinating are its anecdotes. Beyond that, it challenges thoughtful readers to consider their diets, their carbon footprints, their roles in the world, their religious views — all without ever explicitly raising any of these issues.

Years ago, in my book Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, I offered a definition of "spirituality" as follows: "the emotional surge we feel when our apprehension of the reality of interconnection is enhanced." By this light, Carl Safina has written a deeply spiritual, scientifically profound, and politically motivational book. "[W]e're not doing our best," he concludes. "Our species best understands the world yet has the worst relationship with it.... We see the whole universe through a human lens. The harder step is to get outside ourselves, look back at where and how we live."

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.