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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Ethology

Beyond Words What Animals Think and Feel

By: Carl Safina(Author)
477 pages, b/w maps
Publisher: Profile Books
Whether you are fascinated by charismatic megafauna or the study of animal behaviour, Beyond Words is a heartfelt gem of a book. It is never too late to read a bestseller that you have ignored so far.
Beyond Words
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  • Beyond Words ISBN: 9781788164238 Paperback does not include plates Apr 2020 In stock
    £6.50 £9.99
  • Beyond Words ISBN: 9780805098884 Hardback includes plates Jul 2015 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 2-4 weeks
  • Beyond Words ISBN: 9780285643468 Hardback does not include plates Dec 2016 Out of Print #230010
Selected version: £6.50
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About this book

Please note that the hardback published by Henry Holt (NHBS stock code #221661) includes the photographic plates, whereas the paperback published by Souvenir Press (NHBS stock code #248577) does not.

In a world where we usually measure animals by human standards, prize-winning author and MacArthur Fellow Carl Safina takes us inside their lives and minds, witnessing their profound capacity for perception, thought and emotion, showing why the word "it" is often inappropriate as we discover who they really are.

Weaving decades of observations of actual families of free-living creatures with new discoveries about brain functioning, Carl Safina's narrative breaches many commonly held boundaries between humans and other animals. In Beyond Words, readers travel the wilds of Africa to visit some of the last great elephant gatherings, then follow wolves of Yellowstone National Park sort out the aftermath of their personal tragedy, then plunge into the astonishingly peaceful society of killer whales living in waters of the Pacific Northwest. We spend quality time, too, with dogs and falcons and ravens; and consider how the human mind originated.

In his wise and passionate new book, Safina delivers a graceful examination of how animals truly think and feel, which calls to question what really does – and what should – make us human.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A heartfelt gem of a book
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 6 Jul 2020 Written for Paperback

    Recognising that animals are intelligent beings with inner lives, emotions, even personalities has a troubled place in the history of ethology. For most pet owners, these things will seem self-evident, but ethologists have long been hostile to the idea of anthropomorphising animals. The tide is turning, though, and on the back of decades-long careers, scientists such as Frans de Waal, Marc Bekoff, and Carl Safina have become well-known public voices breaking down this outdated taboo. In preparation of reviewing Safina's new book Becoming Wild, I decided I should first read his bestseller Beyond Words. I have to issue an apology here: courtesy of the publisher Henry Holt I have had a review copy of this book for several years that gathered dust until now. And that was entirely my loss, as Beyond Words turned out to be a beautiful, moving book.

    A plain summary of this book could run something like this: a large book in four parts in which ecologist Carl Safina delves into the inner worlds of elephants, wolves, and orcas, with frequent comparisons other animals. This is based on interviews with biologists, time spent with them in the field observing their study animals, and close reading of both the books they wrote and the primary scientific literature.

    This summary would tell you of the long-term studies and numerous observations that have revealed so much. How elephants in a herd defer to the leadership of a matriarch, who is a walking memory bank of valuable knowledge on e.g. the location of food and water holes in times of famine and drought. How they show empathy by caring for their wounded and sick, even grieving their dead, paying close attention to bones long after the death of their owner. How they communicate, using infrasound to cover long distances, and how the slaughter for ivory causes life-long havoc by destroying family structures.

    The wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park (who will finally get their due later this year in the forthcoming Yellowstone Wolves) have revealed how the different alpha males and females have their own personalities, some ruling their pack calmly, others tyrannically. These are clever carnivores who outsmart competitors threatening their pups, and cooperate in a complex fashion to bring down large prey. Here, too, human hunters killing wolves causes collateral damage that reverberates down the social hierarchy, breaking up and reshuffling packs, often costing more lives.

    And killer whales? These highly social and long-lived marine mammals live in pods that, like other cetaceans (see Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins), show what can only be called culture. Such as their exceptional dietary specialisation that is taught to youngsters. These echo-locating predators show refined, cooperative hunting techniques and are intensely social, mothers contributing to the survival of their children and grandchildren well after menopause. Just as elephants and wolves, they recognize other individuals after prolonged periods of separation (and show it too). We learned much of this the hard way by catching killer whales for display in marine theme parks. Suffice to say that breaking up families and isolating individuals in small pools has turned out to be extremely traumatising.

    But this would neglect much of what makes this an exceptional book. And I am not talking about all the other intelligent beings populating these pages: the primates, dogs, dolphins, and birds.

    Take the much-needed history lesson of why scientists have been so shy to grant animals a measure of agency and intelligence: the mere mention of it could kill your academic career. In Mama's Last Hug, Frans de Waal called this resistance to anthropomorphising "anthropodenial". Safina agrees that we have taken it to the other extreme: "Not assuming that other animals have thoughts and feelings was a good start for a new science. Insisting they did not was bad science." (p. 27). Notably, though, where De Waal makes a careful distinction between emotions and feelings, Safina uses these two words interchangeably.

    Or what of the gentle skewering of academic concepts such as "theory of mind", the realisation that others have their own motivations and desires? Those who continue to deny animals this should get out more, for they show "that many humans lack a theory of mind for non-humans". In Safina's hands, the mirror mark test, that supposed litmus test of self-awareness, looks daft. Animals failing to recognize their own reflection only show that they do not understand reflection, without it, well, reflecting on self-awareness. In the wild, both self-awareness and gauging another's state of mind are often a matter of life or death.

    Probably one of the most convincing threads that runs through this book, and to which Safina returns frequently, is that of evolutionary legacy. Consciousness, emotion – the mental traits that we long thought as uniquely human – have deep roots. Peel back the skin and underneath we find similarities everywhere: the same neurological circuits, the same hormones, the same physiological pathways. And why would we expect anything else? We know that evolution excels at reusing, repurposing, and rejiggling existing structures and processes.

    So, he happily goes against the grain and speculates about animals' mental experience in this book, though always with one eye on evidence, logic, and science. (He helpfully bundles up the more unbelievable ones on cetaceans in a chapter called "Woo-Woo".) To really see animals not for what, but for who they are, observations outside of the artificial environments of laboratories and captive enclosures are vital. Consequently, as Safina admits, much of what he relates here is anecdotal. As many sceptical scientists, myself included, like to say: "the plural of anecdote is not data". But the bin in his mind labelled "unlikely stories" is getting cluttered. Anecdotes can only keep piling up for so long before you can no longer ignore them.

    Finally, this book would not have the impact it has had if it was not for the writing. It is easy to see why Safina's oeuvre has garnered literary awards. His many, short chapters are threaded together suspensefully. His wordplay sometimes borders on brilliant: when observing our shared evolutionary history and legacy: "beneath the skin, kin"; when pondering our endless cruelty towards animals: "the next step beyond human civilization: humanecivilization".

    Beyond Words is a heartfelt gem of a book. Whether you are fascinated by the lives of charismatic megafauna such as elephants, wolves, or killer whales, or have an interest in animal behaviour, pick up this book. It is never too late to read a bestseller that you have ignored so far.
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Carl Safina is author of six books, including Song for the Blue Ocean, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Eye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, and The View From Lazy Point. Safina is founding president of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University, where he also co-chairs the University's Center for Communicating Science.

By: Carl Safina(Author)
477 pages, b/w maps
Publisher: Profile Books
Whether you are fascinated by charismatic megafauna or the study of animal behaviour, Beyond Words is a heartfelt gem of a book. It is never too late to read a bestseller that you have ignored so far.
Media reviews

"Dr. Safina is a terrific writer, with a contagious enthusiasm [...] draws out haunting resonances between animal lives and our own [...] Captivating"
New York Times

"At once moving and surprising, Beyond Words asks us to reexamine our relationship to other species-and to ourselves"
– Elizabeth Kolbert, author of, The Sixth Extinction

"This book breathes love of and respect for animals and is rich with observations and extraordinary travel experiences. It is a delightful and enlightening account of both how we relate to them and how they relate to each other"
– Frans de Waal

"Combines lambent writing with dazzling facts, while also illuminating our knowledge of significant and engaging subjects [...] Exemplary"
Washington Post

"Wise, passionate, and eye-opening at every turn, Beyond Words is ultimately a graceful examination of humanity's place in the world"
Psychology Today

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