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Questioning Our Views on Nonhuman Animals

In Review: Inside Animal Hearts and Minds

In Inside Animal Hearts and Minds: Bears that Count, Goats That Surf, and Other True Stories of Animal Intelligence and Emotion, Belinda Recio serves up an engaging coffee table book demonstrating that animals share a broad range of attributes with humans. A visually attractive light read, the book enjoys a foreword by Jonathan Balcombe (biologist); and it has been reviewed by Irene Pepperberg (cognitive psychologist), Con Slobodchikoff (conservation biologist), Jennifer Vonk (cognitive psychologist), and James Wood (veterinarian) — all of whom having specific credentials as ethologists.

goatPhoto by Sylvain FriquetBelinda Recio serves up an engaging coffee table book on animal intelligence and emotions, but risks reinforcing anthropocentrism by promoting similarities between humans and other creatures as the basis for enhancing our compassion toward the latter.

Recio hopes that her effort will contribute to a greater realization of our commonalities with other creatures, which, in turn, will lead us to "more readily recognize them as kindred spirits and treat them — and the environments that sustain them — more compassionately." To that end, she stitches together relatively recent findings about particular aspects of multifarious creatures.

Intermittently illustrated through key photographs — including from experimental and field studies — and accompanying explanations, the majority of these findings are research-based. Some of them are accidental observations videotaped by nature watchers; still others are observations made by credible researchers even though the researchers could not record the requisite evidence.

Also reported in the book are anecdotes about some species — anecdotes that are either common knowledge or are well known to people that have happened to share a close proximity with those species. On such occasions, Recio brings a more immediate credibility to the anecdotes as a writer by bridging the gap between the creature world and the research world.

Recio's account is lightly sprinkled with references to YouTube and other Internet links that have attained conspicuous popularity for their depictions of nonhuman animals in impressively human-like actions. She has provided useful explanatory contexts to these otherwise scattered links. 

The overall comprehension and credibility of the text is assisted by its outstanding "Notes" section and a fine index.

As for the attributes whose presence in "animals" Recio has undertaken to highlight, they are as follows:  laughter, humor, and mischief; reciprocity and cooperation; rule-bound conduct; friendship; play and imagination; empathy and altruism; a sense of the sacred; awareness and identity; language; numerical cognition; tool use; spatial intelligence; creativity and aesthetics (dance, music, creative mimicry); and, surely, intelligence. The book devotes a chapter to each of the above segments — i.e., to depicting the presence of a particular trait or a cluster of traits from the above list in individual members of particular species or across a given species.

Recio is generally attentive to the theoretical definitions of terms denoting the above attributes. For instance, she is careful to highlight the differences between such proximate terms as "reciprocity" and "cooperation," and "empathy" and "altruism." These semantic subtleties are indispensable to behavioural research and its findings. She also effectively explains researchers' reasoning behind study or observational parameters, tests, results, and interpretations.

photoname Photo courtesy of Skyhorse PublishingRecio's attention to semantic subtleties are indispensable to
behavioral research and its findings.

It is illuminating to go through Recio's explanations of different tests, and the tests' inner details. The "answering by name" test, for example, shows that creatures of some species respond to uniquely personalized calls — except that the caller has to be one of their own relatives rather than a human! Green-rumped parrotlets, for instance, are speculated to have their own signature contact calls, which are not genetically inherited. Rather, each individual is taught a contact call by the parents, whether biological or foster. Parents chirp a unique call at the chick, who learns to chirp back. Chicks also learn the signature contact calls of their parents and siblings, and the whole family uses them for intra-family communication.

Another particularly interesting finding — pointing to creatures' "spatial intelligence" —is that the dung beetle "takes a mental 'snapshot' of the sky while doing his dance on the dung ball, and then during his journey he compares this internal mental star map with the actual external starry sky to keep on track." Yet another finding is that Gunnison's prairie dogs "can communicate surprisingly specific information, such as 'small human wearing blue shirt walking slowly'."

And so on.

As to the book's weaknesses, I recognize at least three. First, Recio risks reinforcing anthropocentrism by promoting similarities between humans and other creatures as the basis for enhancing our compassion toward the latter.

Second, and correlated with the above, are the author's imaginings about the future evolution of certain species. Consider, for example, the following statement: "If chimps are in their own Stone Age, then what kind of technology might they be capable of achieving given another few million years of evolution? ... Perhaps…chimps might be capable of developing their own kinds of complex technology, just as humans have."  Granted, writers' indulging their imaginations can provide interesting food for thought; but here Recio seems to pander to an underlying desire for rendering nonhuman creatures increasingly in the likeness of humans.

Last, the book largely bypasses admitting the extent to which its core thesis is an attempt from within the Western intellectual framework to break out of the same. Instead, both Balcombe and Recio present ethological advances — writ large — as a compliment to science. This tactic is misleading in ways that are not always realized — but which also cannot all be discussed in a short review such as this. 

Suffice it to suggest here that ethological advances — as well as compassion toward nonhuman creatures that they are supposed to inspire — are every bit as much a critique of science as they might be a compliment to the same. From mechanomorphic visions of the world to the practice of vivisection, science has been characterized by traits that fly in the face of compassion-inspiring ethological research that Recio showcases here — even though experimentation on animals remains prevalent even now. Meanwhile, opposition to experimentation on animals is spearheaded by those that are called activists or ethicists — and their opposition is not fundamentally any different from the historical opposition to vivisection, either.  

As to how science could exhibit two contradictory tendencies — one attributing intelligent subjectivity to nonhuman creatures, and the other objectifying and experimenting upon the same — it has little to do with its awesome capabilities but everything to do with its being celebrated as a misunderstood notion. The point is that ethological advances and enhanced compassion toward nonhuman animals cannot logically be turned into an exclusivist paean to something so open-ended and even vague as science — whose misarticulation as something gloriously exceptional is a theological byproduct of the history of the West.   

Notwithstanding the above criticisms, Recio's account remains a significant effort that has plenty to inform its readers in a thoroughly enjoyable fashion.

Piyush Mathur
Piyush Mathur, Ph.D., is the author of the book Technological Forms and Ecological Communication: A Theoretical Heuristic (Lexington Books: 2017). A glimpse into his current endeavor can be had here.

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