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Animal Wise
How We Know Animals Think and Feel
Virginia Morell
read on July 1, 2013

Animal Wise is a journalist's investigative research into the minds of animals - how they act, learn, solve problems, and how they think. It was interesting, though I expected it to go a bit deeper into whatever the nature of consciousness is. Similar to Biocentrism, seems a bit odd to write an entire book that revolves around the nature of consciousness without really exploring what we think that means. Morell gets around that by focusing instead on the terminology "do/how animals think?" rather than "are animals conscious?", which is a somewhat meaningful distinction, but still... I feel like you shouldn't start conversations about animal emotions if you're not prepared to take a stance on what exactly you think consciousness and free will are.

Anyway, turns out animals are quite a bit more intelligent than I thought... or... at least they're very intelligent in ways I didn't realize. Dolphins especially, which seem to roam around in gangs, and communicate well enough with each other to pretty much say "let's go beat up those other dudes over there and take their women!". Dolphins just barely come short of being able to communicate outright with humans. They're fantastic learners, and can put the patters we give them together in meaningful ways.

Elephants are super smart too, and driven by an elder matriarch who, as far as we can tell, guides the herd based on her judgements and extensive memories and experience, rather than on any kind of genetic instincts.

Speaking of elephants, Morell briefly touched on animal's brain sizes (and I think how, as a % of body weight, a dolphins brain is the biggest after humans) - but I would have liked more discussion as to the different biologies of animal brains. I've seen compelling evidence before that the size of a neocortex matters greatly as far as what you're able to learn, etc - so why wouldn't an elephant (or whale, or anything with a massive brain) be any smarter? [Potentially those animals don't actually have massive brains, I'm not sure, but it seems improbable that human brains are the largest by mass].

I don't really think the book had much of an agenda. I say that in a good way. It wasn't really about 'hey, maybe it's immoral to eat animals' or anything like that. I think it allowed the reader to make those kinds of conclusions if they wanted to, and it certainly provided evidence or encouragement for that kind of a response, but I don't really think that's what Morell was going for. I think the idea was more along the lines of 'hey, maybe more people should be taking a closer look at this, because there's a lot here that we don't understand and could stand to learn from'. Anyway, I really enjoyed it.

Author Bio:

Virginia Morell is a New York Times bestselling author of four books. Her latest, Animal Wise, has been widely praised as "touching and provocative," "fascinating and intellectually sweeping," and "heart- and brain-stirring." A correspondent for Science since 1990, Morell covers evolutionary biology, conservation, and animal behavior. She's also a regular contributor to National Geographic, and her writing has appeared in Slate, the New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, Lapham's Quarterly, Conde Nast Traveler, Discover, Outside, and Best American Science and Nature Writing. Her 2004 National Geographic article on climate change was a finalist for Best Environmental Article from the Society of Environmental Journalists. She blogs at Animal Wise at Psychology Today. Born in Southern California, Morell received a B.A. in English Literature from Pomona College in Claremont. She also has M.A. in English Literature from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and an MSc in Environmental Studies from California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her parents were great outdoor enthusiasts, who passed to her their travel skills and "itchy-feet" genes. After her studies at McGill, these travel genes seriously kicked in, and she crossed the globe to Ethiopia, where she lived for two years, teaching English composition at what was then Haile Selassie I University. Not long after her arrival, the Ethiopian Army deposed the Emperor, and gave the university the more prosaic name, The National University. Her time in Ethiopia left her with a lasting love for the country and African continent, the people and wildlife, and taught her the virtue of patience and that revolutions are not as romantic as they're made out to be in many books and movies. She has since returned numerous times to Ethiopia and other parts of Africa for her articles and books. Most recently, she has written about grieving animals, dogs that joke, monkeys that whisper, and the 2,000 wild coyotes that now populate the city of Chicago. In addition to Animal Wise, Morell is the author of three other celebrated books. The New York Times awarded a Notable Book of the Year to Ancestral Passions, her dramatic biography of the famed Leakey family and their notable findings. Blue Nile, about her journey down the Blue Nile, from Ethiopia to Sudan, was a San Francisco Chronicle Best Travel Book. And The Washington Post listed Wildlife Wars, which she co-authored with Richard Leakey, as one of their Best Books of the Year. An accomplished public speaker, Morell spent March 2009 as a principal lecturer for National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Program on one of its exclusive, round-the-world trips. She lives in Ashland, Oregon with her husband, writer Michael McRae, a Calico cat, Nini, and a smart, six-year-old American Working Farm Collie, Buckaroo. Read “Animal Minds,” Virginia Morell’s National Geographic cover story that explores animal intelligence, the subject of her book Animal Wise (Crown, 2013). Elizabeth Kolbert selected this article for the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009 (Houghton Mifflin).