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Book Review: 'Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals' by Jonathan Balcombe

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March 1, 2010

Peter Spendelow, NW VEG President

Can animals reason? Do they act only on instinct? Do they have emotions? Can we ever know what they are thinking?

For most of the twentieth century, scientists avoided questions about how animals might feel and what they might think. They wanted to be viewed as objective in their study of animals and not use terms laden with human meaning. Unfortunately, this led many to a view of non-human animals as being without emotions or thinking, and guided solely by reflex, instinct, and trial-and-error learning. But beginning with the work of pioneers such as Jane Goodall and Donald Griffin, scientists have discovered great surprises about how animals socialize, communicate, and think. As Jonathan Balcombe describes in his new book Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals, no longer is it viewed as heresy for researchers to examine such aspects as reason, culture, and even moral awareness in animals. His book documents that researchers around the world have found more thought and feeling in animals than humans have ever imagined.

I was excited the hear that Jonathan Balcombe had this new book coming out, because I was preparing a talk on animal consciousness, and thought he might have assembled the sort of information I was looking for. Fortunately, the very first copies of Second Nature had just been printed, and the book publisher was very kind to send me an advance copy. The book did not disappoint me. It was a fun read, and I learned a lot of material that I was able to use in my talk.

I first met Jonathan in 2007 when he came to Portland to speak at VegFest based on his book Pleasurable Kingdom. That was a delightful book, showing that contrary to all those "wild nature" shows that we see on television, life in the wild is not just a grim struggle for survival. Pleasure is adaptive in that it teaches animals the foods and experiences that they should seek out. If you look at animals in the wild, you will see that they often are clearly doing enjoyable things such as eating, playing, touching each other, mating, and apparently having a good time.

Second Nature goes well beyond Pleasurable Kingdom in giving us an understanding of the complex ways in which animals perceive and react with other animals and the environment. It starts out looking at animal senses, and shows how in many cases animals not only have sharper senses than we do, they often have full senses that we don't have. Birds can sense magnetism. Some fish can both make and sense electricity, and use it to perceive what is near them. Bats can make sounds far out of our hearing range, and use this to "see" flying insects similar to how we use light to see. What do these senses feel like to these animals?

From here, Balcombe goes on to look at animal intelligence, and this is where the book begins to get really fun. There is a section looking at fish--animals that many people have prejudged to be lower animals, cold-blooded and machine-like. Some scientists have argued that fish cannot even feel pain, since they don't have the same brain structures we use to feel pain. But in the 400 million years or so since we last shared a common ancestor with most fish, fish brains did not stop evolving and adapting to a more complex and continually changing environment. In one of the more amusing studies that Balcombe describes, three carp were played recordings of Bach's classical music and also the blues of John Lee Hooker. All three fish learned to distinguish between the two musical genres and even could generalize from the specific artists to multiple artists within each genre.

Following this are chapters on emotions, awareness, communications, sociability, and even morals and virtue--all examined from a scientific basis. Many of the examples are sure to amaze you. But for those more interested in the philosophy--what it all means--the last couple of chapters will be the most interesting. Quoting George Bernard Shaw that "custom will reconcile people to any atrocity," Balcombe looks at how we can be so caring and kind to animals in one part of our lives and then so cold, indifferent, and cruel under other circumstances. People might be very loving to their dogs or cats, but when they think of animals as groups or things, such as species or populations or renewable resources, they lose track of the individual importance of each of the individuals. Talking about "fish stocks" or "harvest limits" treats these sentient individuals as mere commodities--no more important that talking about tons of sand. But then Balcombe goes on to show how things are changing and how more people are coming to realize that animals are sentient, feeling individuals who deserve our respect.

Second Nature is scheduled for release on March 16, 2010, and is available for pre-order now. To learn more about this and other books by Balcombe, visit his web site at If you are interested in natural history and animal consciousness issues, this book is a must-read.

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