Beyond Words

Carl Safina / Henry Holt and Co. / 480 pages

Most people intuitively know that animals can think, have social lives, and emotions. Yet, when people are asked to provide evidence for their convictions, they struggle. How do we adequately describe something about another species when we can hardly describe it in our own? In his new book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, Carl Safina has given us this evidence, in an expansive and passionate narrative.

In this well-researched book, you are invited to join Safina on a journey, as he visits with scientists who have spent decades observing and learning about the animals around them. At each stop, evidence of the well-developed social, emotional and cognitive lives of animals is presented—not so much on our terms, but on theirs.

From Kenya to Yellowstone to Puget Sound, Safina introduces us to these scientists, describing their work not in dry scientific prose, but with a storyteller’s flair. Through them, we learn about the very social and rich lives of elephants, wolves and orcas; from joy to sadness, from friendships and alliances to battles. How else can one describe the gentle heartbreak of a mother elephant using her tusks to carry her sick baby, something that has never been seen with healthy babies? How else can one describe the comeuppance a tyrannical alpha female wolf gets when she picks a fight with her meeker (but gentler and more cooperative) sister and, instead, gets driven from the pack by a coalition of female wolves who had been at the receiving end of her despotic reign? In so many ways, the lives of the animals mirror our own.

Yet, as Safina repeatedly points out, they are not like us. They are like themselves. Their view of the world may be dramatically different than ours, but is no less rich and interesting. Safina brilliantly describes their perspectives, not as better or worse than our own—just different. An orca, using sonar pulses to navigate, communicate and locate food, creates a three-dimensional map of the dimly-lit ocean that makes it bright as day. An elephant, listening to the infrasound communication of her sister, who is miles away, will know exactly where and when to meet up with her. A wolf determines the health of a nearby pack through scent markings to decide if she can safely move through their territory.

Understanding animals is difficult. As Safina continually describes, they are not automatons, devoid of thought and feeling, responding to behavioral cues precisely and predictably. They are individuals, learning and processing concepts in many different ways, often beyond our powers of comprehension. When we try to validate an animal’s thoughts of their world, using our perspective, we do them injustice. In Beyond Words, Safina has written the rare book that successfully presents the challenging scientific concepts of animal thought and communication in a manner accessible to everyone. In doing so, he has helped open our minds to a new way of looking at animals.

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