Jason G. Goldman reviews Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise
It was just after six o’clock in the evening on an autumn day in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve. A researcher watched a female elephant known as Eleanor collapse. She was a matriarch, an elder within female-dominated elephant society. Her swollen trunk dragged on the ground. One of her tusks was broken, evidence of another recent fall. Another matriarch, Grace, ran toward her and tried to stabilize the ailing pachyderm with her tusks. But Eleanor’s back legs were too weak to support her massive body, and she fell again. The rest of her herd had continued their journey, but Grace stayed with Eleanor as day turned into night.
By eleven o’clock the next morning, Eleanor was dead. Over the next few days, no fewer than five other elephant groups visited Eleanor’s carcass. Several of these, like Grace, were completely unrelated to her. They poked at her lifeless body, sniffed it, and felt it with their feet and with their trunks. Did they know that they were touching death? Do elephants grieve?
This story is well known among animal cognition researchers, and it is one that Virginia Morell beautifully—almost poetically—recounts in her book Animal Wise. “Her six-month-old calf never left its mother’s side, even after park rangers cut out her tusks to make sure they did not fall into the hands of poachers,” she writes. By the calf’s ninth month, researchers had lost track of it and assumed it was “probably killed by a predator.” Like us, elephants are lost without their mothers.
But we’ve only just come to recognize this. Comparative cognition laboratories have historically relied upon just three animals. Morell recounts a conversation with one cognitive scientist who pointed out that decades of research were built upon “rats, pigeons, and college sophomores—preferably male.” It’s laughable now, but this is the thinking that dominated the fields of psychology and cognition for so long. Cognitive scientists have since adopted other species into their research programs, examining critters more familiar to anthropologists, ethologists, or evolutionary biologists.
Take dolphins and chimpanzees. On the surface, they’re tremendously different. But they are both, like humans, highly social. By comparing them, scientists can understand the evolution of sociality—and in doing so, might better grasp what it means to be human. Or consider Fido. Dogs are sensitive to human social cues in a way that even our closest cousins, the bonobos, are not. The list goes on: songbirds tell us about the evolution of language. Ants and bees teach us about group decision making. Fish are being used to investigate emotion.
The practical uses of knowledge derived from animal cognition research should be obvious, though perhaps it became so only in recent years. “It was very common in the last century,” Morell writes, “to manage wild animals almost as if they were vegetable crops. Even today, whale populations are referred to as ‘stocks,’ implying that they are farmed.” But a pod of whales is not like a field of carrots, an elephant herd is not like an apple orchard, a chimpanzee family is not a sheaf of wheat. It takes more than sunlight and water to build a bonobo.
Recent history has proven that husbandry and management programs are more successful when they’re informed by a species’ natural feeding habits, navigation skills, mating, parenting, and other social behaviors. But Morell leaves the reader with a very different sort of argument, one that appeals to our emotions—the very same emotions we share with other animals.
In a chapter on emotion and fish, Morell describes a study conducted by biologist Victoria Braithwaite. She injected a bit of bee venom into the lips of some trout. The fish behaved in a way that “suggested discomfort.” They rocked back and forth, which is unusual for trout but is also eerily similar to something distressed primates do. For three hours, the fish avoided food. Other trout, which had been injected with a harmless saline solution and had therefore felt the same needle-prick, “ate with as much gusto as did a group of untreated fish.” So the trout weren’t reacting in a simple, mindless, reflexive way to the injection.
If fish can feel pain, Morell pointedly asks, should we practice catch-and-release sport fishing? It is here that her narrative comes a bit too close to an animal-rights call to arms. Animals “cannot argue for their rights or how they might best be treated or farmed or managed,” she says. “Most animals have no voice that we can hear, unless we speak up for them.” What seems absent from this argument is a discussion about animal rights versus animal welfare. (Braithwaite provides one answer: it is more ethical to use barbless hooks.) But this is a small quibble with an otherwise compelling book.
“What do the minds of animals tell us about ourselves?” Morell asks in the final chapter of Animal Wise. She responds that “they have moments of anger, and sorrow, and love. Their animal minds tell us that they are our kin.” Instead of simply relying on animal cognition research to drive better or more effective conservation efforts, Morell argues, by studying animal cognition we will better understand our own place within the broader animal kingdom.
Animals grieve for their dead. Animals play. Animals teach. Some animals even seem to imagine. By peering into the minds of crows, monkeys, dolphins, or dogs, will we see our own reflections staring back? And if we do, will that spur us to treat our nonhuman cousins with empathy and compassion?
Humans are quick to draw superficial distinctions between groups within their own species in order to justify or rationalize the poor treatment of others. Can we expect better of our species when it comes to the way we treat other taxa? I’m not sure. ❧
Jason G. Goldman received his PhD in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California. His research focuses on social cognition in animals. He writes “The Thoughtful Animal” blog on the Scientific American blog network.
Art: “Love Rat” by Banksy