Jan. 8th, 2017

osprey_archer: (books)
I found G. A. Bradshaw's Carnivore Minds a great disappointment. For a book that purports to be about the fact that carnivores of all kinds are not unthinking automatons but in fact have lively and variable personalities, there's very little about individual animal personality at all, and quite a bit of repetition of the fact that animal brains have lots of parallel structures with human brains. Okay already! I understood it the first five times you repeated it!

Bradshaw also, oddly, has the opposite problem as well: on the rare occasions that she does venture into characterizing an individual animal (as with Tillikum at Sea World; is it unfair to think that she uses Tillikum because the movie Blackfish already did all the heavy lifting of finding out about him?), she gets overwrought and sentimental. I think it is fair to say that we can tell that animals think and feel. It is probably going too far, at least in a nonfiction book, to describe in detail what an animal was thinking when he killed his trainer. In fact I don't think I would make that leap for a human under similar circumstances, unless of course the human told me about it afterward, because there are lots of things someone - human or animal - could be thinking or feeling in that moment and, as a non-telepath, I just don't know.

Fortunately, I recently found a wonderful book about the same topic, except a hundred times better done: Carl Safina's Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, which has lots of glorious detail about individual animal personalities and also animal social systems (I think the wolf section is particularly well done in this regard; it helps, as Safina points out, that wolves are probably as much like us as any animal on earth) - while also hewing closely to describing the actual behavior and what that behavior suggests about emotions, rather than going into florid descriptions of what Eight-Twenty must have been thinking when her sisters kicked her out of the pack.

Safina is also delightfully salty about animal intelligence researchers and in fact the whole thorny thicket of animal intelligence debates. Like this:

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, famously said, "If a lion could talk, we wouldn't be able to understand it." Like most philosophers, he had no data. Worse, he seems not to have known any lions. Such impediments never give philosophers cause for pause. But okay. He implies that humans, at least, understand each other. But do we? Our words often fail...After all, with lions on the same plains, with both of us following the same prey and stealing each others' kills, we became human. We have a lot in common. It's not the lions' fault if some humans later became philosophers.


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