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Animal Instincts: Four New books Explore the Connections Between Humans and Animals

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Do animals have consciousness, feel pain, have a soul? 

For a while now, humans have enjoyed anthropomorphizing animals. Whether it’s Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web or the raucous wild animal crew in Jungle Book, giving animals human-like emotions makes us feel connected to a larger connected circle of life. Animal research has long explored how we relate to our distant cousins, even as it sometimes debunks popular theories served up by mass entertainment. Remember flighty Dory in Finding Nemo with her notorious short-term memory? That theory, it turns out, is as flaky as Dory herself might be.

Among the many questions that routinely float to the top when it comes to the animal kingdom, is one that is decidedly very anthropocentric: How much are animals like us? To answer that question is to tangentially ask: Do animals have a consciousness? And even if Dory does wonder if she has a conscience, that might be a step too far. New books exploring the connections between humans and animals, and ones that look at the world from their point of view are hitting bestseller lists and might well challenge your beliefs about the distant arms of our evolutionary tree.

What a Fish Knows

Fish are not just sentient, Jonathan Balcombe writes, but also “aware, communicative, social, tool-using, virtuous, even Machiavellian.” Did you know that a small squid can learn mazes faster than dogs do, and a small goby fish can memorize in one trial the topography of a tide pool by swimming over it at high tide a feat few if any humans could achieve? Balcombe, the director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, reviews scientific literature about a number of aspects related to piscean behavior: their social dynamics, recognition capacity, even their fondness for sunbathing. He reviews contradicting research surrounding the “fish feel pain” camp and concludes that there has to be substantial merit to agreeing with this thesis. This lively book presents studies that show that fishes might even recognize you and be able to use tools, a task that only primates have been thought capable of doing in the animal kingdom. By this breezy book’s end you might well agree with Balcombe’s argument that “The simple possibility is that fishes are individual beings whose lives have intrinsic value that is, value to themselves quite apart from any nutrient value they might have to ask, for example as a source of profit, or of entertainment. The profound implication is that this would qualify them for inclusion in our circle of moral concern.”

Being a Dog

If you’ve ever had a Beagle who just can’t take her nose off your kitchen floor this olfactory exploration of a dog’s world just might be your meal ticket. Alexandra Horowitz paints a compelling picture of the point of view of a dog and immerses the reader in that four-legged world. How much does a dog know and can do? There are a few hints from research. Dog owners will be able to confirm that their furry friends have episodic memory like humans do, i.e. they remember when it’s time for dinner, when a walk is in the offing or if they’re being dragged to the vet. Unlike a few other animals though, dogs don’t seem to be able to tell that it’s them in a mirror, which makes one wonder how much of a sense of self they do have.

The Soul of an Octopus

Search “octopus escape” on YouTube and you’ll find a surprising number of hits that demonstrate the remarkable ability of these “Houdini” artists to escape from the slightest of holes to find food and even freedom. In this book, nominated for the National Book Award, the author serially befriends a few of the tentacled creatures at the New England Aquarium and her close observation of octopus behavior is a delight to read.

She verifies that octopuses can shoot jets of water to express dissatisfaction. Much like humans, octopuses have been found to be purposely, and sometimes elaborately, uncooperative. “When a student would try to scoop an animal from its tank with the net and transfer to a bucket to run a T-maze for example, the octopus might hide, squeeze into a corner, or whole fast to some object and refuse to let go.”

The book makes a sound case for further exploration into the mental capacities of octopuses, especially given that their brains have 300 million neurons. If there is no central consciousness, does an octopus have a collaborative, cooperative but distributed mind? Does it have a sense of multiple selves? Does each arm literally have a mind of its own? These and many other questions about these tangled creatures are eloquently explored in The Soul of an Octopus. The research could just leave you believing that octopuses might just have a soul and are capable of displaying emotion if we know how and where to look.

Carnivore Minds

It is easy and possibly convenient to buy into myths about carnivores as deadly predators especially when encounters in the wild are often acted upon on impulse. Nuance is typically lost in the descriptions of the “majestic” tiger or the “venomous” rattlesnake, but Bradshaw paints a more complete picture of wild animals, showing how complex animal behavior truly is. Bradshaw is an expert on trans-species psychology, the focus on animal psychological well-being, so she brings her expertise in that field to the table. Whether talking about pumas or elephants in the wild, or crocodiles and rattlesnakes, she also places the discussion of these animals squarely in the crosshairs of habitat encroachment and climate change.

Poornima Apte is an award-winning Boston-based writer and editor with a passion for books. She is happiest when her bedside stash of books resembles a Jenga pile.


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