“A sperm whale learns who she will be journeying with, a macaw casts a
covetous eye on a beautiful neighbor, a chimpanzee learns to pay to play.
Culture creates vast stores of unprogrammed, unplanned knowledge.
The whole world speaks, sings, and shares the codes.”
Yesterday I posted what was in effect a blog explaining the background to a podcast on ‘animal culture’ that I’m posting tomorrow. It introduced marine conservationist Carl Safina, who is a guest on the podcast.
I admitted yesterday (rather shamefacedly) to knowing nothing about Carl at all. ‘Shamefacedly’ because many conservationists will probably know at least something about a man who is the inaugural holder of the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University, whose writing won the MacArthur “genius” prize in 2000, who holds Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships, who has received book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies, and who has been awarded the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. He is held in high esteem around the conservation world for his radical thinking and his most recent books (according to Wikipedia) “explore cognitive and emotional capacities of the minds of other animals, as well as individuality and cultural learning in free-living animals.”
Yes, Carl Safina is someone I probably should have known at least something about, particularly before interviewing him. Fortunately, though, I did have a chance to catch up/save face a little and do some much-needed research before we actually spoke, as Carl kindly sent me a review copy of his latest book ‘Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace‘, which was published just a few weeks ago.
We’ve not written a book review on The War on Wildlife Project before, but when it so clearly fits into our remit I see no reason why not to. I’m going to cut straight to the chase here. ‘Becoming Wild’ is a wonderful read. You don’t win awards and medals if you can’t write, and the book is as lyrical and poetic as it is thought-provoking. Of course, from an interviewer’s perspective, it gives a highly useful insight into the thinking of the author himself – though, as I’ve not read any of Carl’s other books (not yet, anyway) I’m not in a position to say whether it reveals hitherto untold positions or ideas to his existing audience. But clearly Carl Safina thinks very differently to much of the rest of the world. He is (of course) passionate about wildlife, but more than that he sees animals as individuals, and has spent a career trying to understand them. He goes beyond even that, though, constantly asking questions (like all intelligent people he appears to be insatiably curious), challenging himself and us to understand the larger question of ‘why’ (‘why do macaws possess such beauty’, for example) and what the answer to that might mean (“why do we humans have the capacity to perceive beauty?” Because if, writes the author, “anything is more miraculous than the existence of life, it is that Life has created for itself a sense of beauty“).
Life has created for itself a sense of beauty: which means that Life is aware of beauty (and if we humans can find something ‘beautiful’ – a fairly abstract term when you think about it – then why wouldn’t other species also do so: we’ve all come from the same roots and have similar nervous systems). But why has it? For those of us that grew up with the trope that ‘evolution (natural selection and adaptation) is always the answer ‘why’ – why do peacocks have ridiculously long and otherwise impractical tail feathers, why do songbirds sing for up to ten hours a day, why are parrots so boldly coloured when it makes them so visible to predators: because ‘evolution’ – these are questions that are deliciously insightful.
The subtitle, ‘How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace‘, perhaps points to the subject matter – but not the route we take over three hundred pages. The book is written in three parts, based around his visits with three equally dedicated and remarkable scientists studying animals in the field: tracking families of sperm whales in the Caribbean with Shane Gero; marvelling over the fiery plumage of scarlet macaws at the famous clay licks of the Tambopata in Amazonian Peru with Gaby Vigo; and getting somewhat frustrated with the machismo of (male) chimpanzees in the forests of Uganda with Cat Hobaiter (according to a temporarily tetchy Carl, “with chimps as with humans, male passions don’t just waste everyone’s time; they waste the potential for better-quality time“).
Each part essentially open with Carl’s experiences with each of these superb conservationists and are rich in imagery and recall. They are so well-observed that in most books they would happily satisfy a reader if nothing else was included. Here, though, and not to diminish them in any way, they act almost as beautifully prepared hors d’oeuvre, as scene-setters before the main course. As the descriptions unfold, they lead us into what Carl Safina appears (again, to my limited knowledge) to really excel at: wondering aloud about how everything fits together, how millennia of animal culture (the importance of which to “the other-than-human world has been almost entirely missed“) has shaped a world we’re only just beginning to see. As Carl writes in the Epilogue, “this book is about where culture has led Life (capital L meaning all of life on Earth, writ large) during its journey through deep time“.
Animal culture, Life, and time. But this is a book about exploration as well, not only of the environment and wildlife and unique cultures forming and dissolving (or more usually being dissolved) but of ideas. And those ideas are presented with great skill. There is a quotable phrase on almost every page, or at least I found myself copying sentences down so that I could remember them and think about them later. Lines such as “How does a whale find meaning in life?” (which is almost the first thing I read), and “Whales have survived the arrival and proliferation and the onslaught of humans. But will whales’ ways begin to fail? We live in a time when those are questions.” With the focus on ‘animal culture’ we are again asked to think about how evolution works: “Could species result without geographical isolation because of culture alone?” Some of the things we are asked to acknowledge are worrying and fall at our door: “The point is, individuals vary, so cultures vary. Cultures evolve and respond to change. And that means: cultures can be damaged. Can be lost.” The final question, the haunting closing line of ‘Becoming Wild’, is “Can we evolve a culture for a beautiful future on Earth? Only humans can ask that question. Only humans need to. And everything that means anything depends on our answer.”
‘Becoming Wild’ is, as is hopefully apparent, a dense read – but not a difficult one. It’s challenging, in that ideas you may hold as obvious and complete turn out to be more of a starting- than an end-point. It will (unless you’re one of the relatively few people who already know all of this) cause you to wonder why this is new to you. And it will (unless etc etc) change the way you think about animals, how and why they behave in the way they do, and just what that might mean for their survival on a planet they once knew so well but which – in our hands – is becoming an alien land that they are increasingly lost in.
As I said, I’ve not read any of Carl Safina’s other seven books (which span more than twenty years), but I can only imagine how his thinking may have evolved as he has absorbed and wondered and analysed. Talking of journeys, if ‘Becoming Wild’ is typical of his work it would be a fascinating one to accompany him on.
Tomorrow’s podcast is perhaps more about that ‘journey’ (or at least how it may have changed him and what conclusions he has drawn from it) than an interview about ‘Becoming Wild’. That’s partly because it was also recorded with Philippa Brakes, a Research Fellow at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, who is also following a fascinating path to understanding what animal culture is and how it might be incorporated into our ideas of conservation. Surprisingly, neither of them had ‘met’ before (Carl is based in New York, Philippa in New Zealand, but I had assumed that researchers like these would have crossed paths at some point), but the conversation flowed and could have been at least twice as long.
Unfortunately, even in lockdown, there simply wasn’t the time – but if either of them would like another go at it, I’d jump at the opportunity….