The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals

elephantBy Tim Flannery, originally published at the The New York Review of Books.

The free-living dolphins of the Bahamas had come to know researcher Denise Herzing and her team very well. For decades, at the start of each four-month-long field season, the dolphins would give the returning humans a joyous reception: “a reunion of friends,” as Herzing described it. But one year the creatures behaved differently. They would not approach the research vessel, refusing even invitations to bow-ride. When the boat’s captain slipped into the water to size up the situation, the dolphins remained aloof. Meanwhile on board it was discovered that an expeditioner had died while napping in his bunk. As the vessel headed to port, Herzing said, “the dolphins came to the side of our boat, not riding the bow as usual but instead flanking us fifty feet away in an aquatic escort” that paralleled the boat in an organized manner.

The remarkable incident raises questions that lie at the heart of Carl Safina’s astonishing new book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Can dolphin sonar penetrate the steel hull of a boat—and pinpoint a stilled heart? Can dolphins empathize with human bereavement? Is dolphin society organized enough to permit the formation of a funeral cavalcade? If the answer to these questions is yes, then Beyond Words has profound implications for humans and our worldview.

Beyond Words is gloriously written. Consider this description of elephants:

Their great breaths, rushing in and out, resonant in the halls of their lungs. The skin as they moved, wrinkled with time and wear, batiked with the walk of ages, as if they lived within the creased maps of the lives they’d traveled.

Not since Barry Lopez or Peter Matthiessen were at the height of their powers has the world been treated to such sumptuous descriptions of nature.

Safina would be the first to agree that anecdotes such as Herzing’s lack the rigor of scientific experiments. He tells us that he is “most skeptical of those things I’d most like to believe, precisely because I’d like to believe them. Wanting to believe something can bias one’s view.” Beyond Words is a rigorously scientific work. Yet impeccably documented anecdotes such as Herzing’s have a place in it, because they are the only means we have of comprehending the reactions of intelligent creatures like dolphins to rare and unusual circumstances. The alternative—to capture dolphins or chimpanzees and subject them to an array of human-devised tests in artificial circumstances—often results in nonsense. Take, for example, the oft-cited research demonstrating that wolves cannot follow a human pointing at something, while dogs can. It turns out that the wolves tested were caged: when outside a cage, wolves readily follow human pointing, without any training.

Safina explains how an evolutionary understanding of the emotions helps us to see even humble creatures as individuals. The chemical oxytocin creates feelings of pleasure and a craving for sociality. So widespread is it that it must have originated 700 million or more years ago. Serotonin, a chemical associated with anxiety, is probably equally ancient: crayfish subjected to mild electrical shocks have elevated serotonin levels, and act anxiously. If treated with chlordiazepoxide (a common treatment for humans suffering from anxiety) they resume normal behavior.

The basic repertory of emotions evolved so long ago that even worms exhibit great behavioral sophistication. After a lifetime studying earthworms, Charles Darwin declared that they “deserve to be called intelligent,” for when evaluating materials for plugging their burrows, they “act in nearly the same manner as a man under similar circumstances.” Emotions are the foundation blocks of relationships and personalities. Driven by the same complex mix of emotion-inducing chemicals as ourselves, every worm, crayfish, and other invertebrate has its own unique response to its fellows and the world at large.

Worms and crayfish may have distinct personalities and emotional responses, but their brains are far simpler than ours. Humans fall within a small group of mammals with exceptionally large brains. All are highly social, and it is upon this group—and specifically the elephants, killer whales, bottlenosed dolphins, and wolves—that Safina concentrates. The last common ancestor of these creatures was a primitive, small-brained, nocturnal, shrew-sized mammal that lived around 100 million years ago. The brains, bodies, and societies of these “animal intelligentsia,” as we might call them, are each very different, making it hard to understand their lives.

Safina sees and describes the behaviors of the animals he’s interested in through the eyes of researchers who have dedicated their lives to the study of their subjects. What is it like to be an elephant? Cynthia Moss, who has lived with the elephants of Amboseli National Park in Kenya for four decades, sums them up as “intelligent, social, emotional, personable, imitative, respectful of ancestors, playful, self-aware, compassionate.” It all sounds impressively human, but elephant societies are very different from our own. Female elephants and their young live separately from males, for example, so they have no conception of romantic love or marriage (though the females can be very interested in sex, enough to fake estrus in order to attract male attention).

Much published behavioral science, incidentally, is phrased in a neutral language that distances us from animals. Safina argues that we should use a common language of grief, joy, friendship, and empathy to describe the equivalent responses of both human and other animals. To this I would add the language of ceremony: What other word but “marriage” should be used to describe the ritual bonding, followed by lifelong commitment to their partners, of creatures like the albatross?

Safina comes to an unfamiliar but empirically based conclusion: prior to the domestication of plants and the invention of writing, the differences between human societies and those of elephants, dogs, killer whales, and dolphins was a matter of degree, not kind. Why, he asks, has it taken us so long to understand this? Are our egos “threatened by the thought that other animals think and feel? Is it because acknowledging the mind of another makes it harder to abuse them?”

The discovery of nonhuman societies composed of highly intelligent, social, empathetic individuals possessing sophisticated communication systems will force us to reformulate many questions. We have long asked whether we are alone in the universe. But clearly we are not alone on earth. The evolution of intelligence, of empathy and complex societies, is surely more likely than we have hitherto considered. And what is it, exactly, that sets our species apart? We clearly are different, but in light of Beyond Words we need to reevaluate how, and why.

Beyond Words will have a deep impact on many readers, for it elevates our relationships with animals to a higher plane. When your dog looks at you adoringly, even though he or she cannot say it, you can be as sure that love is being expressed as you can when hearing any human declaration of eternal devotion. Most of us already knew that, but have withheld ourselves from a full surrender to its implications. Along with Darwin’s Origin and Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene, Beyond Words marks a major milestone in our evolving understanding of our place in nature. Indeed it has the potential to change our relationship with the natural world.

This article was originally published at the The New York Review of Books, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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10 Responses to The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals

  1. It is interesting in its own way. But I don’t see the connection to Krishna consciousness. What can I learn from this article that will help me to advance in Krishna consciousness? Perhaps someone can help me understand.

    We know that all creatures are spirit souls, just like ourselves. We know that they identify with their minds and bodies just as we do. We know that they can’t contemplate metaphysical concepts. We know that we should protect them. We know that we can engage them in Krishna’s service through their labor and we can perhaps share some prasadam with some of them. We know that if they hear the holy Name they will make spiritual advancement.

    But what can we get from reading this article? I don’t get it. Hare Krishna!

    • Ishan,

      As mentioned on the Harmonist’s ‘About’ page:

      We also publish articles commenting on issues of the day, both within the Gaudiya community and the world at large. We focus as well on news articles relevant to the greater spiritual community and the importance of sustainable living, which we view as the best way of living in this world while pursuing transcendence.

      I hope that helps.

    • There might be a link to Krsna Consciousness. Please read this article about Sri Jagannatha dasa Babaji, who organized a Festival of Dogs, in which the miracle was, that the dogs behaved like civilized humans waiting for their prasadam meal nicely sitting in a row silently until one dog gave the signal to honor Krsna prasadam.

  2. Hare Krishna Gauravani Prabhu! Thank you for addressing my questions.

    Is this site also frequented by non-devotees? Is the intention to get them to realize that nature’s creatures have feelings so that they will stop thinking of them as food and relate to them as beings?

    What are some other possible reasons for presenting article?

    There are limitless things of “interest” in this world. There is one business called Great Courses that have the foremost professors from around the world giving classes on DVD on every imaginable subject, biological, scientific, math, astronomy, etc. They send me their catalogs because I once purchased a DVD on Tai Chi from them as a form of exercise (I’m 72). But I don’t purchase anything more from them. Where do we draw the line? If the idea is to help people stop their violence towards animals, I can see that. But devotees don’t hurt animals. So what is the thought behind sharing this article?

    • Ishan,

      Those who hare not members of our lineage also read the Harmonist, but this article is also for members in that it seeks to keep them abreast of how others are thinking about issues that members have insight into. It is an example of a thought current in today’s world on a subject that we are also interested in n this case it is related to the subject of consciousness and how it is not dependent upon the human brain among other things.

    • Ishan,

      As Tripurari Maharaja mentioned, we post these types of articles as a way to keep up with how modern thoughts on these topics are developing. If someone were to ask why we do not consume meat, this article gives some good reasons from a scientific point of view, rather than a solely ethical point of view. These scientific reasons support ahimsa, not necessarily our sadhana, and helps others at least understand why our approach to nonviolence includes non-human life, and at best might give them impetus to consider other aspects of the philosophy. In other words, we share a nonviolent sensibility with people who are not sadhakas and it is good for everyone involved to discuss it. In fact, it is possible for a non-sadhaka to be more ethical than sadhaka and we might have something to learn from others that would also benefit us spiritually in some way.

      If someone were to ask you why you practice Tai Chi if you are not the body, how would you explain it? If you knew about scientific research on Tai Chi (I’m sure you already do) and could explain it from that point of view and how it supports your sadhana, that would be a useful discussion for everyone.

    • This article may open up the heart of some readers. Some readers.

  3. Dear Swami Tripurari and Gauraviani Prabhu,
    Obeisances. Guru and Gauranga ki jaya!

    Thank you both for your kindness and patience. Now I understand that this site is not exclusively for devotees. And also that it is pertinent that devotees understand the current of contemporary thinking in society as a basis for relating to that society in a mood of outreach.

    We have been contemplating these very topics here at home. It appears that there are three ways in which the consumption of animals as food can be discouraged:

    1) The “humane” approach, which includes articles such as the one above.
    2) The concern over health and vitality.
    3) The sustainability of our planet.

    It seems that people are most sensitive and defensive when they feel that they are being accused of being inhumane and/or morally incorrect when eating mammals, birds, fish, and the like.

    However, they are very concerned about their health and vitality. Most people, especially in the west have been subjected to a lifetime of propaganda saying that meat (protein) is absolutely necessary for good health. In this connection there is one book called THE CHINA STUDY which actually proves the opposite. The scientist who did the study was working for the American government and had no bias, but was surprised to find, by studying a variety of cultures, that cancer and other diseases are present in society in proportion to the amount of meat consumed. As he tried to make these finding public he was removed from his post. His book is most scientifically presented and a very easy read. He also explains the capitalistic and political forces at play that don’t want the public to have this knowledge.

    People are interested in health and vitality because they want to enjoy life in this dimension to the max. But without a planet to live/play on, not only can we not be healthy, but even our existence as a species is at risk. A most wonderful book along these lines is THE SUSTAINABILITY SECRET by Kip Anderson. In this book Anderson makes the case that animal agriculture is the major cause of global warming, and that this understanding is being suppressed by all of the major environmentally-orientated societies, simply because they are on the payroll of the animal agriculture giants. The needs of this industry in terms of water, land for grazing and producing food for the animals is devouring the planet. The book is simply fascinating and shocking, and again, very readable.

    So although we as vaishnavas feel that unnecessarily killing these creatures for food is against moral principles, it appears that we don’t have to approach those who eat animals on that basis. Rather they can be convinced that their personal health and the health of the planet that supports our existence are shockingly at risk because of the ways and means of the animal agriculture industry. And that risk to our health and welfare is simply a function of what we consume as our food.

    Every devotee should read these two books, and get on the band wagon for spreading this knowledge of healthy living and saving our beautiful planet.


  4. Hare Krishna Indira Prabhu,


    I will check out that article. Thank you.

    Your servant,

    Ishan das

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