Beyond Words


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4 stars
Part science, part poetry, part "woo-woo", a book to help us empathize with animals

Carl Safina is a marine ecologist and author of several books about animals and ocean ecosystems. Beyond Words focuses on animal intelligence and emotion, and it does so by taking the reader on a journey to elephants, wolves and killer whales, describing the remarkable intelligence evident in their behavior (the complex family relationships of elephants, the sophisticated hunting strategies of wolves, the remarkable relationships between killer whales and humans, and so on). Safina is a gifted writer, and his stories are poetic, helping us see these animals as beings with minds.

And that is his mission, about which he is completely honest. There’s a reasonable amount of scientific support here, as well as some well-deserved ridicule for scientists who apply standards of evidence to animal emotion and intelligence that many humans would fail to meet. On the other hand, when Safina gleefully (and under the self-aware chapter heading “woo-woo”) speculates about animal telepathy and similar ideas, one may wish for his own standard of evidence in reporting anecdotes to be a bit higher, even if he’s careful about the conclusions he allows himself to draw.

Those odd detours don’t detract from his masterful storytelling that relays many scientifically uncontroversial facts about the ability of animals to think and feel in ways sometimes like, but sometimes entirely unlike ourselves. It’s a good book that could have been a great one with a more challenging editor or co-author. If you’re considering it, I recommend reading the New York Times review as well.