Everyone knows that Gandhi said that a nation’s moral progress is equal to the way it treats its animals. So how do we rate North Americans? For one thing, getting into most medical schools is easier than adopting a rescue dog. On the other hand, we seem to be okay with the non-stop house of horrors that is factory-farmed meat. So a mixed bag, really.
Perhaps that will change as scientific breakthroughs help us better understand the intelligence, adaptability, and ways of dealing with the world of nonhuman animals. The following four recently published books should contribute considerably to this, in part by taking our anthropocentric arrogance down a notch. David Byrne may have been onto something when he wrote, in his Talking Heads song lyrics Animals“They think they know best / They’re laughing at us.”
For the big picture, it’s hard to imagine a better place to start than Steve Brusatte’s fun but masterful game. The Ascension and Reign of Mammals, detailing the 325 million year residence of mammals on earth (the book covers homo sapiens, but barely, reflecting our relative backwardness in the game). We tend to think of mammals as coming right after dinosaurs. But the two groups share a common ancestor, and the mammals have lived successfully in the shadow – literally, none larger than a badger – of the dinosaurs for millions of years. Mammals have also done a tremendous job of going through various events of drastic climate change and mass extinctions, not to mention the breakup of continents.
The author of a previous best-selling dinosaur book, the US-born, Scotland-based Brusatte has become something of a star in the world of paleontology. It helps that he’s young, charismatic and has good writing chops: each of the book’s sections begins by luring us in with a cinematic “clip”, often of a mammal facing a geological or evolutionary turning point.
Among other things, we learn why the advent of articulated jaws and specialized teeth created the modern mammal. Also learn that the absence of dinosaurs didn’t just allow mammals to get big, it allowed them to get weird, so if wildlife dentistry isn’t your thing, you can marvel at descriptions of Brusatte of various post-glacial megafauna. These include the “unholy horse-gorilla hybrid” known as chalicotheres, “hell pigs”, giant beavers and three-meter-tall sloths. You can’t make this stuff up, but you can dig it up, apparently.
The evolution of mammals did not always go in the expected directions either. We’ve all seen those comics with fish legs growing and crawling on land. Less well known are the “walking whales” that chose to abandon dry land for the ocean in what is now desert near present-day Cairo. Even if Brusatte tips his hat to Darwin, in his own account evolution sometimes looks less like the result of natural selection than like a drunken game of corpse exquis.
Like Brusatte, Ed Yong, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for The Atlantic, has a rare ability to break down overwhelming amounts of information into compelling, digestible detail. His A Huge World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realm Around Us will have you questioning everything you thought you knew about how nonhuman animals perceive our shared world.
Yong structures his infinitely fascinating book around the German concept of Umwelt, which posits that all animals, including us, live inside a single sensory bubble that we (erroneously) believe to be all-encompassing. We see, in other words, what we need to see, what you can take as a political metaphor if you wish.
An example is sight. Our belief that dogs are missing because they don’t see the same range of colors as we do turns out to be a hothouse case: our own inability to see ultraviolet, for example, is the exception in the animal kingdom. , not the rule. Birds, reindeer and fish eat all sorts of interesting things that we are not.
Animals see in a myriad of unexpected ways. Among the takeaways from the book is the mind-blowing fact that brittle star, a starfish-like marine invertebrate whose whole body acts as a compound eye, has vision even though it cannot form images. It’s a concept that we, a very visual species, have a hard time understanding.
Yong’s writing is wonderfully fluid – wry, lighthearted, sometimes even temperamental. My only beef with A huge world is the numerous footnotes. Unfortunately, they are far too interesting to ignore. so don’t, but make sure you have plenty of pairs of pharmacy readers handy.
Deflating our smug sense of human exceptionalism is Nova Scotia animal behaviorist and dolphin expert Justin Gregg’s mission in If Nietzsche was a narwhal: what animal intelligence reveals about human stupidity, which is much better than the sadly cutesy title might suggest. (This refers to the cognitive dissonance of animal lover Friedrich Nietzsche’s wish to be as dumb as a cow so as not to be burdened with nihilistic thoughts, and his simultaneous pity for cows for being too dumb to think nihilistic thoughts.)
The question of what our avowed intelligence has done for us lately dominates the following chapters, each contrasting human and animal forms of intelligence, invariably to the detriment of the human. Although we are unique in our ability to ask “why” questions (animals rely on causal inferences), whether this ability has benefited us in the long run is up for debate. Namely, no other animal has, by creating the conditions for its comfort, also created the conditions for its extinction.
In often amusing and absurd detail, Gregg repeatedly demonstrates why animals can have the intellectual upper hand. He suggests that human intelligence may be rare not because it’s so great, but because it may not be really useful.
The “A History of the World in…” books have been on the scene for some time now (objects, maps, meals, cheap things, glasses, or, according to Julian Barnes, 10½ chapters), so Simon Barnes books A history of the world in 100 animals maybe was late. Chockablock with lavishly reproduced paintings, prints and photographs on thick white paper, it looks like a miniature coffee table book. But no one reads small books, while this collection of animals which the author says has had the greatest effect on humans through the ages, certainly should be.
Like his predecessors in this list, Barnes, British novelist and former wildlife journalist for the London Times, begins by chastising us for our adherence to the “human oneness heresy” that has led us down a path of destruction. Animals have enabled our agriculture, our war and our health, via the medicines and food that their bodies provide. But while we continue to need them, most don’t need us.
The book’s brief entries (three to four pages), each of which covers a series of well-organized facts about a particular animal, can be read non-linearly, depending on the mood in which you are moved. Some – the horse, the cat, the dog, the bison, the mosquito – are obvious and expected. Others, like the barnacle, the saloa or the archaeopteryx, are less so. About the egret, we learn that a Victorian vogue for their plumage threatened their extinction until four women successfully campaigned for their preservation on both sides of the Atlantic, paving the way for the modern environmental movement.
The cockroach? Barnes suggests our disgust stems from the fact that they’re one of the few species we couldn’t destroy. As such, they remind us that the animals were here long before we were and will stay long after we are gone.
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