Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness is basically a love letter to the octopus, written by a philosopher who also sent hours diving to a magic spot off the coast of Australia where multiple octopuses live, making meticulous observations, and taking magical pictures, some of them included in the book.
It seems that the author was not too sure of how to organize the book, as it starts much like a textbook, navigating the tree of life and relating some in-lab experiments with octopuses (wily guests: they seem to recognize individual experimenters and play mind games and splashing games with them!). Eventually it settles into an extended description of the goings-on at Octopolis (the dive site) and I bet that by the end, you will be as sorry as I was to realize that octopuses have short life spans. If they lived longer, they may take over the under-the-sea world!
Animals Strike Curious Poses is a collection of essays about famous animals (or groups of animals), some more historical, and others with a more philosophical bent. Some of the essays are interesting, even delightful. I got a chuckle from the “Osama the Crocodile” essay, which exposes both the weight of first names and the absurdity of children readers. And who knew that an elephant inspired the merger of the P.T. Barnum and Bailey circuses? But other essays are tedious, obscure, or seemingly pointless.
Ever wondered what it’s really like to be a bird? A worm? The author of Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide did not attempt being a worm, although he ate worms and lived for weeks in a man-sized badger den (bringing his young son with him!), slept under rhododendrons on urban lawns to live like a fox (it turns out not to be a good explanation for curious police officers, who knew?), and tried valiantly to be a river otter (wetsuits are not as cosy as otter pelts). His adventures are, literally, fantastic, all the more since, in between eating worms and venturing outside only at night, as badgers do, he will suddenly wonder if badgers may, well, use adjectives. Never mind that it doesn’t exactly make sense to explore another species life in a human body, the exploration of alternative points of view will stay with you.
It’s been just two days and already there is stiff competition for Sex In the Sea to remain my favorite science book of 2016. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is a sweeping review of the often awkward methods scientists have used through the years to assess the intelligence of animals (non-human animals, that is, since humans are animals too!), and how evolutionary biologists, using more modern approaches, are changing the perception of animals as essentially dumb. There is the too-small mirror that “proves” that elephants cannot recognize their reflections — but they can, if the mirror is 8 feet tall! There are crows who congratulate fledglings after a successful flight. Apes that play subtle political games that would put our politicians to shame. Chimps that perform flawlessly on many trials, then get tired of the exercise and clearly show the experimenters that they could continue with the task, but they are just too bored with it. Another chimp that can remember dozens of digits (humans can manage 5-7). Wolves that follow humans’ hand gestures, but only if raised by humans (otherwise they figure out the tasks independently!)
The stories are entertaining but also deeply endearing.
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel mixes inspiring stories of animals, mostly elephants, wolves, and whales, as observed in the field by long-time observers, with long rants about conservation and the limitations of scientific studies in the area of animal cognition. I could have done without the rants, which obscure the stories and occasionally put the author in an anti-science mode that seems downright silly. Still, the stories are wonderful and clearly suggest great intelligence and complex family structures in the three main groups he describes.
The Intimate Ape: Orangutans and the Secret Life of a Vanishing Species is a strange book, quite disorganized and focusing as much on various individuals dedicated to saving orangutans as on the apes themselves. The chapters meander from one preserve to another, coming back to various characters on several occasions, and even feature, repeatedly, the author’s tween son, who came along on some trips, a bit dangerous for a child perhaps.
But among the messy presentation there appear many stories of individual orangutans who are described as having unique personalities and, in many cases, unique relationships with the humans who care, or cared, for them. It’s all very unscientific but at the same time evocative and provocative: should we really treat apes as mere “animals”?
I love A Wolf Called Romeo, a story of a friendly wolf on the outskirts of Juneau, who played with dogs he could easily have killed, and enchanted their owners. The writer is a wildlife photographer and he tells the story first as a great love story with a wild animal, but he has much to say about the internal workings of the interweaved wildlife agencies that supervise the Alaskan landscape, the politics of human/wolf interactions, the failings of clueless dog owners, and also how experienced wildlife lovers can forget about the distance we must keep so wild animals can remain wild — and survive. O, and the photographs are stunning!