Animal Wise by Virginia Morell

Posted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF's Staff Writer on July 10, 2013

This month, the Animal Book Club is exploring the fascinating Animal Wise by Virginia Morell–a noted author and contributing correspondent for Science, and contributor for National Geographic. She is also an award-winning author of books like Ancestral Passions and Blue Nile, as well as Wildlife Wars (which she co-authored with the world-class scientist Richard Leakey). Animal Wise is an incredible study of the ways that animals–whether dolphins, elephants, birds or wolves–think and feel about their worlds. Virginia kindly worked through some of our questions about animals–check them out below!

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Animal Wise is an observation of the work of other scientists–what conclusions can we draw about animal sentience by comparing the relationships, memories, laughter, and feelings of different animals?

Charles Darwin said it best:

“There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties…. The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”

The same is true for the emotions and various abilities such as memory, attention, and curiosity, which Darwin noted were found even in “the lower animals.” In other words, the mental skills and emotional feelings that we humans often like to think of as particularly unique to humankind, in fact have biological roots. They have evolved–meaning they have a biological past, and that we will find similar, if not identical, abilities and emotions in our fellow creatures.

In your book you discuss both the “educated dolphin” and the “wild mind” of dolphins. What’s the difference?

It’s really a play on the idea that the dolphin researcher, Louis Herman, developed for his study of dolphin minds. Herman began his scientific career as a human cognition psychologist with a keen interest in the “laws of learning.” He became a pioneer in dolphin cognition research–a career switch I write about in Animal Wise. Herman wasn’t an ethologist, like Jane Goodall, and so he didn’t study dolphins in the wild. Instead, he worked with them in captivity at the Dolphin Institute, which was affiliated with the University of Hawaii. Herman regarded dolphins the way that a parent might an especially bright child. He wanted to explore what a dolphin is mentally capable of achieving. In contrast, Richard Connor, a cetacean biologist at the University of Massachusetts, studies dolphins in the wild. He wants to understand the natural pressures–both environmental and social–that would cause a dolphin to evolve intelligence. He’s seeking the “wild mind” of the dolphin.

VirginiaheadshotHow are elephants “among the best social networkers in the animal kingdom?”

Elephant society is centered on the family–consisting of the matriarch, her daughters, and their descendants. Often, a matriarch’s sisters and their offspring are also included in a family group. But a family isn’t always together in the same place. They’re like us–as a family, we may all wake up in the same home, but we leave to do different things. Mom and dad go to work in different places; the kids may go to different schools; some members may stop to shop before coming home. Elephants do the same thing; families separate during the day to do different things or to go visit relatives in other families. They’re able to keep track of the many different elephants they know by their calls and also by smelling where they’ve urinated. They know exactly who is who, and where the various family members are, and where others are going. They also know their relatives in other family groups, and they enjoy gathering together as a clan–which can include several hundred elephants. Their social networks are broad and deep, and they remember each other the old-fashioned way: with their brain’s memory cells, not Facebook!

What compelled you to write this book?

I’ve always been drawn to animals, and loved watching them and thinking about their lives since I was a child. But as a science writer, I learned early in my career that many scientists were skeptical about animals having thoughts or emotions. When I visited Jane Goodall in 1987 at Gombe Stream National Park for the book I was then writing (a biography about the Leakey family of paleoanthropologists), I had several encounters with chimpanzees that ran completely counter to what I’d been taught. I tell about my chimpanzee experiences in Animal Wise, and also my discussions with Jane about why scientists were so reluctant to say, for instance, that chimpanzees could deceive one another, or have friends, or grieve or love. Even a casual observer, as I was, could easily see that they were thinking, emotional beings. Jane assured me that the field was going to change. As soon as she said that, I knew I would write this book one day.

What animal-focused books have you read lately?

I’m an animal lover and a book lover–so, of course, I’m always reading books about animals. Some of my recent favorites: How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King; Gifts of the Crow by John Marzluff and Tony Angell; and The Tiger by John Vaillant.

6 thoughts on “Animal Wise by Virginia Morell

  1. Dee says:

    This book gives me just more reason to stand up and say, “It’s NOT ‘just a dog’!” (Or cat, horse, ANYTHING living!)

    I can’t tell you how that grates on my nerves when I hear someone say, “It’s just a…” It’s not. They have emotions and feelings & some of us feel the feelings those animals have as if they were our own. It’s all in their eyes if more people would just bother looking.

    1. Thanks Dee! And not only that, but animal emotions, human and nonhuman are of such vast complexity that I find it fascinating to study, and wonder, and learn about them!

  2. Lydia says:

    I just purchased “Animal Wise”, so this is my introduction to the Book Club. How does it work? Does the group read certain chapters and then discuss? Who moderates, and where?

    1. Thanks for your question Lydia! Right now we have been moving quickly through books and hope to have a discussion forum revisiting some of them in the future.

      Generally, we interview an author, and a few weeks later provide a review with discussion. So in two weeks we will discuss Virginia’s book in more depth! Our conversations are for the moment held right here on our website! :)

  3. Alexis says:

    Looking forward to seeing what you have to say about the difference between the “educated” dolphin and and the “wild mind” of the dolphin, as well as the differences between the researchers studying them. It is a topic that I’m currently addressing in my own PhD dissertation, although I’ve been looking mostly at sea lion and canine cognition research.

  4. Dee DeSantis says:

    I was drawn to the Q/A about elephants, who are such beautiful, intelligent, sentient beings ~ all the more reason why I am so infuriated by the abuse and exploitation of them in circuses etc. and do what I can to advocate for them. This sounds like a very interesting read; I have just ordered it for inclusion to our collection at my public library.

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