Beyond Words

Have you ever wanted to know what goes on inside the mind of an animal? Carl Safina certainly does. In Beyond Words, the founding president of the Safina Centre in New York showcases his unyielding determination to uncover the consciousness of animals. It makes for a fascinating narrative that spans the African plains, Yellowstone National Park, and the Pacific Northwest, and takes his readers to the complex boundary between humans and other animals. Indeed:

But what is a “human” emotion? When someone says you can’t attribute human sensations to animals, they forget that human sensations are animal sensations. Inherited sensations, using inherited nervous systems.

Safina troubles the rather arbitrary distinction many humans draw between themselves and supposedly “lesser” creatures, suggesting that our consciousness is, in fact, equal to that of an elephant.

Elephants form deep social bonds developed through deep time. Parental care, satisfaction, friendship, compassion, and grief didn’t just suddenly appear with the emergence of modern humans […] Our brain’s provenance is inseparable from other species’ brains in the long cauldron of living time.

While elephants and other animals can’t communicate their emotional sensations to us in a language we can readily understand, neurologists have been able to discern certain core emotions that run parallel to ours. Much of our genetic and hormonal make-up is almost identical to that of other animals: for example, rage is produced in the same parts of the brains of a cat and a human.

Although Safina does not argue that humans and elephants share all the same sensations, he insists that we must not deny the huge emotional capacities of other creatures. In fact, the memory of elephants often seems to far surpass that of humans: they can keep track of large numbers of individuals and recall watering holes unvisited in years tens of miles away – without Google Maps!

Perhaps most “human” of all, elephants exhibit clear signs of the ability to empathise. Safina tells of one elephant pulling a spear from the side of another elephant, and even relays an account of an elephant protectively surrounding a vulnerable woman who had strayed from the path.

The precise why and wherefore of elephants’ feelings of empathy and compassion remain in the realm of mystery. We may not know exactly what elephants are feeling, but they do. Or perhaps they don’t […] Perhaps like us, they simply wonder. If so, there must be others who wonder, too.

To find out more about the inner-lives of these majestic animals, look out for the publication of Beyond Words next month!

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