Animal Talk

In Review: Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace

Ecologist and author Carl Safina asks readers to consider one central question in his latest book, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace: As we make our way through life on a shared planet, “Who are we journeying with?”

Sperm whales use more than 80 codas — repetitive clicking songs that can be compared to human words — to identify clan, self, and family. Photo by Gabriel Barathieu.
Sperm whales use more than 80 codas — repetitive clicking songs that can be compared to human words — to identify clan, self, and family. Photo by Gabriel Barathieu.

He untangles this seemingly straightforward question by digging into the lives and communities of three other animals, learning about their customs and cultures from the biologists who have spent their lives studying them. He turns to Shane Gero, who has been tracking sperm whales in Caribbean sea since 2005, to learn about the massive cetaceans. He learns about macaws from Donald Brightsmith and Gaby Vigo of the Tambopata Macaw Project, which studies the birds in order to protect them, and he looks to chimpanzee communication and cognition expert Cat Hobaiter to learn more about our primate cousins.

One commonality between the three types of animals jumps to the fore: their joie de vivre is in connecting with family, friends, and mates. Whether at sea, in air, or on land, they are part of a group, and thus never lonely.

As Geros explains to Safina, “The main thing I’ve learned from the whales is that your experience of the world depends on who you experience the world with. Who you’re with makes you who you are.”

Much of that experience comes down to constant communication. Sperm whales use more than 80 codas — repetitive clicking songs that can be compared to human words — to identify clan, self, family. Macaws use calls, squawks and screams to communicate, while chimpanzees use noises, gestures, and postures to convey messages and emotions.

book cover thumbnail

Safina’s big idea is that these animal groups have communication-based transmissible cultures, and these cultures change in response to environmental stressors, peer pressures, and even creative urges. Humpback offer an example. When they were being hunted to near extinction along the Baja California coast in the 1700s, survivors migrated to Hawaiʻi, where they had never previously lived. They continue to live there to this day. He sees this as potential evidence that these whales, knowing the risks elsewhere, decided to move together and keep this new migration pattern.

While this ability is an asset in many cases, it can also put these animals at risk. If we continue to encroach on wildlife habitats, and force species into miniscule populations, they will lose their group culture. Animal culture crashes are a lonely prelude to extinction.

Safina is viscerally distressed by the violence built into chimpanzee culture, but concludes that their capacity for altruism and social cohesion feels especially relevant in today’s political climate. Watching chimpanzees make up after conflict, Safina realizes, “Reconciliation, forgiveness — this is the path back from the brink. It’s what holds the center, creates peace when peace is needed, and maintains peace when peace is in jeopardy.”

The biologists profiled in this book may be creating cross-species Rosetta Stones, but it is slow going. We still lack the fluency to fully understand our animal kin; given the limitations to cross-species understanding, Safina urges us to embrace other species simply because they are. “Beings who’ve succeeded on Earth for millions of years don’t seek, and should not require, our approval. They belong as do we.”

In addition to his modern-day research, Safina has an engaging relish for nineteenth-century observations about animals that feel shockingly fresh. Darwin, for example, knew that primates used tools, that beauty drove natural selection, and that animals had deep feelings. He refers to the 1839 book, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, as a forgotten gem. And from Safina’s vantage point, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is not an archaic, macho classic, but an excruciating exploration of America’s murderous capitalist urges suffused with a tender appreciation for whales, floating us towards co-existence.

If Safina can make me want to read Moby Dick, he can make readers want to protect animals and their cultures.

Correction: An earlier version of this review referenced a migration of gray whales to Hawaiʻi. It was humpback whales that made the migration.

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