The Social Lives of Animals

Ashley Ward / Basic Books / 384 pages 

Dr. Ashley Ward is an engaging writer, with a Briton’s native wit. The best part of his book, The Social Lives of Animals, is his genuine fascination with the animal behavior he observes, but his humor comes a close second. He demonstrates the intensity of his interest in easy-flowing and heartfelt prose, describing the genesis of his chosen career with charming honesty in his introduction and reinforcing the empathy he feels in each detailed chapter. He offers amusing anecdotes of his personal encounters with a wide variety of animals doing their social thing, to accompany his more science-based explanations for some of the remarkably complex behaviors animals perform. 

Ward goes around the world and truly looks at how animals interact with each other, from tiny insects to massive whales. As a marine mammal biologist, I naturally went first to the chapter on whales and dolphins (the book makes chapter hopping easy, but basically progresses methodically through the animal kingdom’s taxonomic groups). He chose a number of examples of the extraordinary cultural sophistication and intelligence of these marine mammals, focusing on sperm whales, orcas, bottlenose dolphins, and humpback whales. While Ward is obviously not a whale expert (he repeatedly calls pectoral fins “flukes,” which are only on the tail), his descriptions of coming face-to-face with these species when he’s in the water with them are breathtaking. 

Ward’s consideration for the dignity and individual value of the animals he encounters—from swarming bees to ditch-living fish to elephants—shines through each page. His goal with this book was clearly to share his passion for animal sociality and its many intricacies, even among species humans frequently consider dull or unimpressive (did you know sheep can recognize other sheep from photographs alone?). Yet he chooses his stories carefully, building a solid case that all animals, from termites to hyenas, deserve not only our interest but also our respect.

—Naomi Rose, PhD

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