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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Popular Science

Aesop's Animals The Science Behind the Fables

Popular Science
By: Jo Wimpenny(Author), Hana Ayoob(Illustrator)
368 pages
Much more than just an entertaining book on the facts behind the fables, Aesop's Animals is a deeply informed and nuanced book on animal behaviour.
Aesop's Animals
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  • Aesop's Animals ISBN: 9781472966919 Hardback Sep 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • Aesop's Animals ISBN: 9781472966926 Paperback Oct 2023 Out of Print #260353
Selected version: £17.99
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About this book

Despite being written more than two-and-a-half thousand years ago, Aesop's Fables are still passed on from parent to child, and are embedded in our collective consciousness. The morals we have learned from these tales continue to inform our judgements, but have the stories also informed how we regard their animal protagonists? If so, is there any truth behind the stereotypes? Are crows smart enough to reason? Are donkeys really stubborn and dumb? Are ants truly capable of looking ahead to the future, and planning their actions?

In Aesop's Animals, zoologist Jo Wimpenny turns a critical eye to the fables to discover whether there is any scientific truth to Aesop's portrayal of the animal kingdom. She brings the tales into the twenty-first century, introducing the latest findings on some of the most fascinating branches of ethological research – the study of why animals do the things they do. In each chapter she interrogates a classic fable and a different topic – future planning, tool use, self-recognition, cooperation and deception – concluding with a verdict on the veracity of each fable's portrayal from a scientific perspective.

By sifting fact from fiction in one of the most beloved texts of our culture, Aesop's Animals explores and challenges our preconceived notions about animals, the way they behave, and the roles we both play in our shared world.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A deeply informed and nuanced book on animal behaviour
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 25 Nov 2021 Written for Hardback

    It is undisputed that stories shape our perception, especially when told to us repeatedly from a young age. We have collectively bestowed human character traits on animals through Aesop's Fables and other fairytales. Foxes are sly, donkeys are stubborn, and wolves can never be trusted, right? In Aesop's Animals, zoologist and science writer Jo Wimpenny takes you on a tour through the study of animal behaviour, both in the field and in the laboratory, to show you what these animals are actually like. Reality, it turns out, is not only stranger than fiction, but also far richer and more fascinating.

    Aesop's Animals is organised around nine fables and Wimpenny carefully picked both well-known fables and those around which she can tell an interesting story on certain animal behaviours. This could have been a cutesey pop-science book about crows, wolves, dogs, donkeys, foxes, lions, monkeys, ants, and hares and tortoises. And there is plenty of that. However, Wimpenny is first and foremost a scientist who feels the obligation to present both biology and research in all its complicated, messy glory. Her approach is ambitious, with chapters discussing the animal's basic biology, the behavioural (mis)match between fact and fable, potted intellectual histories of research fields, landmark studies, and, for several chapters, other animal species who behave more as described in the fables. One consequence is that she covers an almighty lot of theoretical ground: altruism, kin selection, theory of mind, inclusive fitness, game theory, tool use, deception, self-recognition, cooperation, imitation, planning behaviour, etc. Some parts of this book require close attention but will yield much food for thought in return. Rather than discussing all chapters, I will highlight two that I particularly enjoyed and end with some general observations.

    Wimpenny opens the book with The Crow and the Pitcher. As she has worked on corvids, this fable is closest to her heart. It is also the one that to me read the most like natural history observation. The more we look, the more birds are anything but bird-brained, showing surprisingly sophisticated behaviours. Corvids have acquired somewhat of a reputation for "systematically demolishing every 'ape-centric' barrier that has been placed in their way" (p. 314). But Wimpenny does more here than entertain you with research on their tool use and critically reflects on this behaviour. It makes this book a delight even when you are familiar with ethology. Take the neuroanatomy; bird and mammal brains are structurally different. However, merely looking at the absence or presence of certain brain regions misses the point that brains are fantastically plastic. Genetic studies show that birds have developed different brain areas to achieve similar smarts as mammals. Primates and corvids have convergently evolved ways to solve similar problems, relying on brains that have been shaped by different evolutionary pathways. More exciting is that Wimpenny critically questions our obsession with tool use, boldly stating that "it's time to bust the entrenched myth that the mere presence of tool use in a species equates with intelligence" (p. 49). The reality is far more nuanced: tool use exists on a sliding scale, from stereotypical behaviours under tight genetic control at one end, to habitual, creative, and flexible tool use at the other.

    In The Dog and Its Shadow, a dog mistakes his reflection for another dog. The mirror recognition test was invented by psychologist Gordon Gallup, Jr. in the 1960s. The idea is simple. You apply a dye mark to the skin or fur of an animal where it cannot see it without the aid of a mirror. Then you observe whether it proceeds to inspect the coloured area using its reflection. It has become the gold standard for self-recognition and various vertebrate species across the tree of life have passed the test over the years. Yet, it remains incredibly controversial for at least two reasons. First is that not everyone agrees that self-recognition in a mirror equates to self-awareness; Justin Gregg supplied a long list of what passing the test might mean. Far more crippling for this idea, though, is whether failing the test implies a lack of self-awareness. Carl Safina was merciless: if an animal does not recognise its reflection "all it proves is that they don't understand reflection" (Beyond Words, p. 276). Dogs are a point in case that Wimpenny explores further here, as they rely more on smell than on vision. Both observations on dogs sniffing yellow snow that has been moved around and some particularly ingenious neuroimaging studies are offering inroads into what might be going on inside their heads. Wimpenny concludes that "Aesop's dog may not understand his reflection, but that doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't have a sense of self" (p. 134).

    Aesop's Animals is characterised by its nuance, never oversimplifying this rich and complex topic. Wimpenny highlights how we still know so little about many animals that some fables can neither be confirmed nor debunked. When she discusses wolves, a footnote cautions against the simplistic story of wolf reintroduction single-handedly regenerating Yellowstone National Park. When discussing horse domestication, she is quick to acknowledge that "for every domesticated plant or animal group, there were likely multiple, independent domestication events" (p. 138). And when discussing self-awareness, she quotes Frans de Waal who cautions against the search for a 'Big Bang' theory. Rather than all-or-nothing, he likens self-awareness to an onion, "built in layers, with different species possessing different gradations of this ability" (p. 111).

    To me, Aesop's Animals is a silent sleeper hit. Given that we have all grown up with these fables, it is hard to overstate just how important this book is. Yes, they are an important part of our cultural legacy, but they have in some cases instilled in us "the darkest form of anthropomorphism" (p. 83). In the absence of actual knowledge about animal behaviour, confabulations have filled the void, sometimes leading to the relentless persecution of animals for merely being animals. Wimpenny mentions the critics who question using fables to structure scientific research.

    Changing adult minds can be an uphill struggle at the best of times, but with children, you have the opportunity to break the chain by which stereotypes and misinformation are passed down the generations. If you plan on reading Aesop's Fables, this is the must-have companion, especially if you plan on reading them to children. When they inevitably ask the hard questions that children ask, you will be grateful to have prepared yourself with the facts on animal behaviour.
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Dr Jo Wimpenny is a zoologist and science writer. After researching crow intelligence at Oxford University, she co-authored Ten Thousand Birds, an award-winning book on the history of ornithology, and has since written for magazines such as BBC Wildlife. Her latest book, Aesop’s Animals, turns a zoologist’s critical eye to a selection of Aesop's fables, asking whether there is any scientific truth to some of humanity’s most famous animal characters. Jo lives in Oxford, UK, with her partner.

Popular Science
By: Jo Wimpenny(Author), Hana Ayoob(Illustrator)
368 pages
Much more than just an entertaining book on the facts behind the fables, Aesop's Animals is a deeply informed and nuanced book on animal behaviour.
Media reviews

"Come for the fables and stay for the behavioral research in this jam-packed but delightful collection. Aesop's Animals is both an intense and playful look at how humans – storytellers and scientists alike – consider the mysteries inside the creatures with whom we share this planet."
Scientific American

"A spirited romp through modern cognitive ethology."
Wall Street Journal

"Engaging and comprehensive, this is highly readable popular science."
– Hannah Beckerman, The Observer

"Every once in a publisher's blue moon, along comes a book so simple and original in its concept that it verges on brilliance and 1,000 science and nature writers howl: "Why did we not think of it?" Such is Aesop's Animals by zoologist Jo Wimpenny, which does precisely what it says on the lid: it puts the anthropomorphic fables of Aesop under the electron microscope of modern science. [...] a clever cadastral survey of animal behavioural studies."
Country Life

"I simply couldn't put it down. The clever ways in which Wimpenny weaves in current scientific facts about topics including future planning, tool use, self-recognition, cooperation, and deception with Aesop's lessons was spellbinding."
Psychology Today

"Wimpenny has the knack for bringing interesting research to life with anecdotes without obscuring the more significant challenges of determining just what animals can do and what they may be thinking."
Wellbeing International

"Wimpenny pumps life into the hard science and keeps her discussions accessible, offering plenty of insight into how humans interpret the natural world."
Publishers Weekly

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