January 8, 2017

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

We are not alone on earth. There are several highly intelligent, emphatic species right here within our midst.

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What’s it about?

Carl Safina’s ground-breaking book details the richness of animals inner lives. He offers compelling evidence that large brained animals – the great apes, killer whales, bottle-nosed dolphins, elephants and wolves, have emotions and cultures that are richer than previously thought.

What Animals Think and Feel:

  1. Emotions evolved in the distant past. Oxytocin, is the chemical that creates feelings of pleasure and increases sociability. It seems to have evolved over 700 million years ago. Even worms exhibit great behavioral sophistication. Charles Darwin believed that their emotional responses to their environment meant they deserved to be classed as intelligent.
  2. Those who have spent decades studying elephants call them smart, social, emotional, personable, respectful of ancestors, playful, self-aware and compassionate. Matriarch led clans of female elephants sometimes associate in larger groups. Individual elephants are able to recognize up to a thousand individuals. They have been known to extract spears from wounded friends, to stay with infants born with disabilities, and to grieve their losses.
  3. Dogs and wolves are intelligent too. There are many similarities between wolves and humans. They are tough, flexible in social structure, capable of forming pair bonds and adaptable to changing hierarchies. While the traditional view is that human’s domesticated dogs over tens of thousands of years ago, the plausible alternative is that wolves initiated contact and the relationship developed out of mutual value to each other.

What Animals Think and Feel:

  1. Sperm whales have the largest brains on earth, around six times larger than our own. Like elephants, adult males live independent lives, roaming solo or moving from group to group. Females and children live in clans of up to thirty. They are social too, taking care of each other’s young and communicating through sonar clicks. Each clan’s clicks are distinctive and mark identity. They allow the whales to synchronize their diving, feeding and other activities.
  2. Killer Whales (Orcas) have a different social organization. Males remain with their mothers all their life. All the young whales have extended lactating periods, reaching, in some cases, to 15 years. Along with human’s they are the only other mammal to experience the menopause. As much as a quarter of the females in any group can be post reproductive but still active. With lifespans of eighty years, grandmothers are important in killer whale societies due to their accumulated knowledge.
  3. Killer whales are also xenophobic and clans have their own food taboos. Some clans eat only one species of seal, others only one species of salmon and they don’t intermingle with members of the other clans. Like sperm whales, the vocalizations are also clan specific. They have been known to form working relations with humans, hunting together and sharing the prey afterwards.


So strong is elephant empathy that they sometimes bury their dead, and will return repeatedly to the skeleton of a deceased matriarch to fondle her tusks and bones. When the Amboseli matriarch Eleanor was dying, the matriarch Grace approached her, her facial glands streaming with emotion, and tried to lift her to her feet.

Grace stayed with the stricken Eleanor through the night of her death, and on the third day Eleanor’s family and closest friend Maya visited the corpse. A week after the death the family returned again to express what can only be called their grief.

A researcher once played the recording of a deceased elephant’s voice to its family. The creatures went wild searching for their lost relative, and the dead elephant’s daughter called for days after.

Take Away Points and Context

  • Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel builds on the recent evidence that suggests animals lives are more complex than we have previously taken for granted. We are not alone on earth. There is intelligent life here. There are several smart, socially emphatic species within our midst.
  • It is a unfamiliar conclusion, but one based on evidence. Before the domestication of plants and the invention of writing, there was little difference between human societies and those of the higher animals.
  • The brains of dogs, as well as humans, have shrunk since we began living together, perhaps because of the mutual aid offered. Our dogs understand us and love us, but we often surrender from the full implications. Why asks the author has it taken so long for to understand animals are intelligent too? Are our egos threatened? Does acknowledging the mind of others make it harder to abuse them?


Full article:

The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals

Tim Flannery

See also:

Animals Minds: I think therefore…

The Economist

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

by Carl Safina
Henry Holt, 461 pp., $32.00


Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Your comments welcome below.
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