Almost everyone has looked at an animal and wondered what it’s thinking. But what might animals and our relationships with them tell us about ourselves? Forthcoming books approach the animal kingdom from unfamiliar angles, revealing the hidden commonalities between humans and a variety of species, and exploring entrenched misconceptions we hold about our partners in the natural world.
Sy Montgomery, naturalist and author of 2015’s The Soul of an Octopus (310,000 print copies sold, per NPD BookScan), turns from the sea to the sky in The Hawk’s Way (Atria, May). In it, she explores her personal relationship with the birds of prey, which began when she enrolled as one of the first students at a school of falconry near her New Hampshire home. “I was shocked by how bloody it was from the start,” she says. “The ferocity of these birds completely held my attention. I couldn’t look away.”
Montgomery found herself transformed by the raptors. “If you open yourself up to these animals they will change you,” she says. Her early experience with hawks, for example, provided a healthy dose of humility. “They’re allowing you to be their junior hunter partner,” she says. “And that’s the highest form of praise they can give you.” Working with animals has also given Montgomery perspective on her place within a larger cosmos. “This incandescent life that we are but one part of should dazzle and inspire us with reverence and wonder and a resolve to protect all of creation,” she says. “That’s what animals teach us.”
Personal stories also help writers express the more subtle ways their relationships with animals have changed them. In Pig Years (Knopf, June), Ellyn Gaydos recounts her time as a farmhand in Vermont. “It’s a seasonal story about plants and animals and the experience of working the land,” Gaydos says. “It’s about life and death because that’s a lot of what farming is.”
Her interactions with pigs changed how she viewed the unhurried and seemingly unproductive act of spending time in close observation of animals. “Sometimes when you’re just sitting on a log hanging out with a pig, you feel like maybe this is a waste of time,” she says. “But it let me slow down and appreciate those relationships and also be more on the time of animals, who don’t really care about wasting it.” Gaydos sees something worthwhile in simply being around the animals, even if they don’t jell with our progress-oriented, productivity-driven mindset. “With nature there’s not a moral to the story,” she says. “But it feels instructive having relationships with animals even if there’s no clear redemptive narrative.”
Other titles reevaluate humans’ relationships with animals through unexpected comparisons. In The Parrot in the Mirror (Oxford Univ., June), behavioral ecologist Antone Martinho-Truswell explores the parallel evolutionary histories of birds and humans. “I’ve always been interested in birds because they’re a very intelligent group of animals that have evolved from a totally different background than humans and other mammals,” he says.
Despite evolving independently, birds and humans share key cognitive and behavioral similarities, including complex social lives, large brains relative to their size, and biparental childcare. “It turns out that each of these behaviors reinforces the others,” Martinho-Truswell says, noting that the collection of traits that makes us human is, as with birds, a package deal.
This example of convergent evolution offered the author, a professor at the University of Sydney, an opportunity to teach a general audience to see the world like a scientist. “It’s a walkthrough of how to think like an evolutionary biologist when you’re looking at two different organisms and wondering why they share what they share and why they differ where they differ,” he explains.
Martinho-Truswell says one major benefit of studying animal minds is what they can reveal more broadly about cognition. “We should try as hard as we can to make educated conclusions about what it’s like to be in the head of a bird, what they do with information, and how they understand the world,” he adds, “because it helps us to understand how our brains and minds work.”
Birds also reflect cultural and societal values back at us, according to ornithologist Tim Birkhead. In Birds and Us (Princeton Univ., Aug.), Birkhead shows how, across history, they have continually captured our imaginations. “People have been impressed and influenced by birds, but the way that they’ve interacted with birds has changed dramatically over time,” Birkhead says. He describes the connection between humans and birds from the Paleolithic era, roughly 12,000 years ago, to the early 20th century as “one of exploitation,” but adds that there have “always been a few empathetic voices.”
Those empathetic voices come to the fore in Birkhead’s discussion of birds in art and culture. As humanity transformed from Neolithic hunters making cave paintings of birds to modern communities of scientists, birdkeepers, and birdwatchers working to conserve them, Birkhead suggests, our current relationship to birds shows how far we’ve come as a species. “I wanted to remind people that our current feeling for birds hasn’t always been there,” he says. “Concern for birds is a bit of a civilized luxury, and we want to hold on to it as long as possible. It’s about treasuring the relationship we currently have where preservation is very high on our list of priorities.”
Several new books take on commonly held conventions of the scientific establishment, calling for a reexamination of the human perspective on animalkind. In Bitch: On the Female of the Species (Basic, June), British zoologist Lucy Cooke confronts a deeply ingrained history of sexism and misogyny in the scientific community’s study of female animals. “In the last few decades a revolution has been brewing,” she says. “We now understand that females are just as promiscuous, just as competitive and dominant as males.”
According to Cooke, the effects of projecting human cultural views onto animal behavior have had implications on how we see ourselves. “The really poisonous thing is the boomerang nature of this sexist bias that started as Victorian misogyny, was incubated by 100-odd years of science, and then was spat out to tell women how they’re meant to behave by evolutionary psychologists who are still doing it today,” she says, cautioning against drawing parallels where none exist. “The animal kingdom is often used as a guide for what we should be like as humans, and the truth is you have to be very careful about the inferences you make.”
Cooke emphasizes that much of the shift in thinking about females is the result of diverse perspectives entering the fields of zoology and evolutionary biology. “When feminist biologists went into the field, rather than ignoring the licentious promiscuity of lionesses, they saw that females were soliciting sex from males,” she says. “That doesn’t seem very chaste to me.”
From murderously competitive female meerkats to same-sex female albatross couples raising multiple chicks in a season, Cooke presents a more multifaceted view of female animals while also highlighting diversity in the natural world. “Now we have LGBTQ voices in science making their presence felt,” she says. “So we’re getting these new ideas and new questions. We’re not just seeing things as male and female. That story is so much more interesting.”
Justin Gregg’s If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal (Little, Brown, Aug.) challenges deep-seated ideas about the superiority of human intelligence by contrasting it with stories of animals who’ve gotten along just fine without it. “The underlying assumption is always that the human way of thinking is the best way of thinking,” Gregg says. “Yet other animal minds often provide a better solution for living a good life or being a successful species than human intelligence.”
With a touch of humor, Gregg describes the incredible problem-solving abilities of animals including fruit flies, whales, pigeons, and household pets. He hopes readers see the fundamental commonality between animals and ourselves. “If you understand that every mind on this planet, from slugs to dogs to humans, evolved through natural selection for the exact same purpose—to find safety, to seek out pleasure, to minimize pain—that breaks down all these barriers between species,” he says.
Similarly, in How to Speak Whale (Grand Central, Sept.), naturalist and filmmaker Tom Mustill surveys the frontier of human-animal connection to reframe the conversation about what animals can teach us. After a whale breached on his kayak in Monterey Bay, Calif., Mustill was inspired to learn more about how new technologies could help humans better understand and possibly communicate with the natural world. “I don’t think we’ve taken in what a big deal artificial intelligence is for the life sciences, because we’ve previously been restricted by our own brains and senses and our own ability to take in and process information,” he says. “Now we’ve got tools that can find patterns within data. It’s sort of superhuman biology.”
As Mustill met with researchers, scientists, and technologists, he realized that technologies like neural networks trained to recognize whale song were moving beyond the limits of human perception. “These machines will help us get over our human difficulty in perceiving the complexity of animal interaction and communication,” he says. While Mustill acknowledges that such technologies could be used maliciously, as they have been with humans, he’s ultimately optimistic. “Discovery can forge connection,” he adds. “With these technologies, we’re going to see invisible worlds and, hopefully, reappraise our relationship to all of them.”
Birkhead points to the growing sense of ecological catastrophe as one reason why readers are turning to books about the animal world. “We’re seeing the natural world disappear in front of our eyes,” he says. “That has increased people’s appreciation for it, and increased the number of opportunities for people to write about it.”
Gregg is perhaps more philosophical about why we’re reaching for these books now. “We turn to the animal kingdom and wonder what animals are doing that we’re not doing, because they seem to have it right,” he says. “They’re not going to make themselves extinct from nuclear weapons. I think people are more interested in learning about animal cognition because they’re not that enthusiastic about human cognition at the moment.”
Matthew Broaddus is a poet and associate poetry editor at Okay Donkey Press.
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