Animal Wise by Virginia Morell

Animal wise coverIn this entertaining and informative book, Virginia Morell explores cognition of thought and emotions in animals. She sets the stage in the first paragraph of the introduction where she asserts:

“Animals have minds. They have brains, and use them, as we do: for experiencing the world, for thinking and feeling, and for solving the problems of life every creature faces. Like us, they have personalities, moods, and emotions; they laugh and they play. Some show grief and empathy, and are self-aware and very likely conscious of their actions and intents.”

I can attest to her assertion because, as a volunteer, I handle and interpret the natural history of birds of prey and snakes at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson and have experienced some of the attributes Morell describes. (Yes, even snakes have personalities).

But how do we really know that animals have these traits? Isn’t that just anthropomorphizing? In the introduction, Morell examines those questions and the evolution of our attitude toward animal cognition. Throughout the book she converses with current researchers and examines the writings of philosophers and other scientists.

The book’s ten chapters explore some attributes of ants, fish, birds, rats, elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, dogs, and wolves. Each chapter presents some fascinating and surprising observations.

For example, study of the archer fish demonstrates that even animals with small simple brains can make cognitive decisions. Archer fish capture prey by knocking them down with a well-placed shot of water. They become better shots by watching the already skilled fish and by practicing. Dolphins have excellent short- and long-term memory and their echolocation is so acute that they can find very small objects hundreds of feet away.

Apparently dolphins can be sneaky. A dolphin in the Marine Life Oceanarium in Mississippi was trained to pick up litter in her tank in exchange for fish. She presented lots of trash. Upon investigation, engineers found that the dolphin accumulated a private stash of debris which she hid under a rock and retrieved a piece whenever she wanted fish.

Some research suggests that parrots assign contact calls, i.e., individual names, to their chicks.

Much of the research documented in this book can be considered controversial and Morell acknowledges that, but she puts things in perspective by citing supporting, on-going research and how it relates to the history of science. She does make a good case that animals are more intelligent than previously thought. She ends the epilogue with this bit of introspection:

“What do the minds of animals tell us about ourselves? That, like us, they think and feel and experience the world. That they have moments of anger, and sorrow, and love. Their animal minds tell us that they are our kin. Now that we know this, will our relationship with them change?”

This book is a good read; it is entertaining and thought-provoking. Morell is a professional science writer who contributes to National Geographic, Science, and Smithsonian and who has written several books.

Animal Wise is published by Crown Publishing and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.