Thinking about how they think

Francis Gooding

  • BuyAre We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
    Granta, 340 pp, £14.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 1 78378 304 5
  • BuyThe Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst
    Greystone, 272 pp, £16.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 1 77164 248 4

Why should we try to understand the lives of animals? The English moral philosopher Mary Midgley’s Beast and Man (1978) ended with a succinct answer: humankind ‘can neither be understood nor saved alone’. No philosophy can hope to understand ‘human nature’, Midgley argued, without acknowledging our integration into incomparably larger and older natural systems. Unfortunately, the philosophy and science of animal behaviour, as she found it, was not up to the task: it generally set out to prove the scientists’ preconceptions instead of basing its conclusions on close observation. Midgley called for a new approach that built on the work of Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, the mid-20th-century pioneers of animal ethology – the study of animal behaviour as it occurs under natural conditions, or at least under experimental conditions that approximate natural ones. In their view, animal behaviour was determined by real motives and complex drives, not merely mechanical causes and imperatives. Midgley believed this approach could be helpful in rethinking the relationship between human and non-human because it placed all behaviour on the same continuum, rather than treating animals as wholly different phenomena.

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