Top critical review
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Our Amazing Friends
on 7 April 2010
'Second Nature' is an evangelizing book which is based on several assumptions. One is that there is a single human belief in animals as little more than mindless machines to be used as superior humans see fit. Another is that changing this belief requires a copious supply of written information.
Jonathan Balcombe is an animal behaviorist who draws on the wealth of research, observation and anecdotes of those working in his field. Before I read this book I regarded myself as someone who did not underestimate the abilities of animals; but I was mistaken. Some of the feats recounted were amazing. There were Mexican free-tailed bats who could locate their pups in a maternity colony containing millions of individuals; a dolphin trained to remove litter from a pool by being rewarded with fish who started hiding paper and presenting pieces; beavers who fashioned pencil-shaped sticks to block the holes in the cap protecting the pipe that drained an artificial pond; and prairie dogs who modified the alarm calls they use for humans according to the colour of the shirt the person was wearing. There are moving chapters on the sociability and virtue of animals which challenge the universality of Darwin's Survival of the Fittest hypothesis. 'Nature's limitations,' Balcombe contests, 'often favour working for the good of all participants.'
Generally the book is well written and easy to read, but I found that some accounts of research were oversimplified and I had to read them more than once to try to make sense of them. There is a beautiful photograph on the front cover of the book, but the other photographs seemed pointless.
I look to science for truth even if this conflicts with cherished beliefs. That animals have emotions, suffer pain, remember, have senses that have different ranges and sensitivities to ours, solve problems intelligently, read body language and fathom our intentions are things intuitive humans have known for millenia. Science gives us glimpses into worlds invisible because of the limitations of our senses. It also provides evidence for what we fail to see because our education does not foster intuition. Truth in science depends on publishing negative as well as positive results, but it is an omission from this book that makes me feel uneasy.
Rupert Sheldrake has carried out many investigations into telepathy and concluded that there is evidence for this type of communication among animals. In a book about the inner lives of animals it seems strange there is no reference to his work. It would be interesting to know what criteria were used for including the work of some scientists but not others.
I have another reservation about this book. The last section reads like a sermon and my intuition tells me that sermons are rarely effective ways of changing human behaviour. We, human beings, have some intelligence and, given appropriate information, are capable of adjusting our behaviour depending on our individual situations.