Book Review: Becoming Wild

Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn Who They Are by Carl Safina

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thoughtful book that, by suggesting that animals are more human than we think, actually winds up reinforcing the truism that you and me, baby, we ain’t nothing but mammals.

We think of “higher emotions” like altruism, familial bonding, and whole-ass Romanticist love as hallmarks of mankind alone, but the fact of the matter is our only monopolies are on pollution and pants.

In the first part of the book, Safina talks about his adventures with a bunch of vegetarian sperm whale researchers and the connections that they formed with the whales. They tagged and recognized the whales, but what’s difficult to conceive of is these 50 foot sea monsters started recognizing them. Eye contact. You’ve looked into the eyes of a dog or cat and you’ve known when it registers, “Hey, I know that guy”. You know the oxytocin is rattling around in those furry, cavernous heads. Consider that same social connection with a 90,000 lb cetacean, because they do recognize you. And if they recognize and socially categorize something as petty and insignificant as a human being, an inconsequential speck trapped in the flat plane of their sky like the Phantom Zone from Superman 3, you can be damn sure they recognize the families they travel, bond, sing, and play with for their 70 year lifespans. Assuming we don’t stab them to death for oil or ambergris in the interim.

Most of this chunk of the book was dedicated to analysis of the whale’s songs, and the cultural mores that develop within them. Different pods of whales have different communication tags for opening and closing their conversations. The examples given from the two groups Safina tagged along to study was a “one, two, cha-cha-cha” clicking, versus a longer “one, two, three, four, five” clicking that designated to the whales where the speaker was from.

“Hey, I’m originally from Scranton. Yeah, where they filmed the Office.”

Whales are doing that.

Their songs are unfathomably loud, traveling for miles, but due to the lives they live if a family member is within 5 miles or so they’re “travelling together”. They protect each other, rush to one another’s aid. They celebrate when reunited after a long time apart. There was a haunting example of a mother who lost calf (to humans, of course), and she pushed the corpse along the surface, through human travel routes, for 14 days.

Sounds like mourning to me.

The next segment of the book was devoted to beauty as a philosophical concept, and the interplay between sexually selected traits to increase reproductive success in other animals (exemplified by macaws, but also by flowers, butterflies, peacocks, etc.) and the weird fact that we also find them beautiful, though not sexually so unless cartoon-exposure imprinting and garden variety childhood trauma badly crossed our wires. Safina waxes philosophical with a beauty for beauty’s sake perspective. I can’t disagree, if only beauty weren’t so damn subjective, but I’m also not an evolutionary biologist or an ecologist nature writer. At best, I’m a boneshaker, and Jungianism can justify just about any philosophy.

It also explores avian intelligence, which is staggering. We all know crows remember people and bring shiny manmade gifts to humans who were kind to them. I didn’t know they understand fluid dynamics and will put objects into a graduated cylinder to displace water until they can grab the food floating on the surface. I didn’t know wild crows design and use hooked tools, which is so advanced that most primates haven’t figured out yet. I certainly didn’t know parrots could be taught geometry, but that’s exactly what they did in the book; the parrots memorized and could distinguish between shapes, and when parts of the shapes were covered, they could still correctly identify them based on the angle they could see. That’s extrapolation.

Part three was an exploration of chimp culture, and their proclivity for warfare despite their preference for peace. Their leadership styles, their predilection for male vanity, their premeditated murder and infanticide, and a whole bunch of other distinctly evil traits that only show up among one other species that we know of. Go on, guess.

There are many books that examine chimp social dynamics in greater detail, so I won’t pull that apart too much here. Suffice it to say, the message at the end was that these animals, who we generally don’t think of as all that intelligent, are just like us, and we’re just like them. No higher, no lower. No tip of the hierarchy. If chimps were around at the same time as proto-hominids, and they got to spears first, it would probably be Planet of the Apes right now.

The take-home is we’re not special, and somehow, that’s reassuring.

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