What I read – Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals

I finally got off my slack butt and read something so I could attend a meetup of the Toronto Animal Book Club! Hosted by vegan gadabout MeShell, we sat down at the Bickford Flexitarian to chat about Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals by Jonathan Balcombe. Examining scientific observations, Balcombe paints a picture of the capability of animals to experience life, emotion and their capacity for intelligence.

Much of what I’ve read about how animals can feel will often focus on non-human primates – it makes sense, as much work has been done on their cognitive abilities and social nature. In this book, Balcombe does cover that ground, but also uses quite a varied spectrum of other examples. Insects, rodents and other small mammals, marine life, and more. It’s fascinating seeing that broad amount of observation laid out to examine the depth of animal life beyond basic biology (not that any of it is mutually exclusive to biology, but it’s still nice to see discussion above and beyond).

The first half of the book generally deals with the types of capacities for living and experiencing that animals display. Sensitivity, emotions, awareness and intelligence. It’s important to examine these in the context of the non-human animals, and realise expecting the same level of emotion, intelligence and language in non-human species is unrealistic, and understand that not every act of an animal species is based on instinct. It was fascinating to consider that animals experience grief like us, when depressed they might favour water drugged with anti-depressants, they have not just self-awareness but awareness of others, can deceive, can communicate, can learn and can have a surprising capacity for selflessness and empathy.

There’s a lot of information going on in this book, so it can be a bit of a slog, but it all comes together to portray the importance of recognising the lives of animals as unique in their own right, but sharing many aspects with ours. I think this is a great quote to share from the book’s conclusion:

“As we’ve seen, fishes and other vertebrate animals have inner lives. As individuals with sensations, perceptions, emotions and awareness, they experience life. Having the capacity to remember past events, and to anticipate future ones, animals’ lives are not merely a series of now moments; by showing that animals have ambient emotional states, we show that their lives play out like a moving tapestry, and they can go better or worse according to their circumstances. As active participants in dynamic communities teeming with other life forms, animals benefit by being on the ball, and learning from their experiences. Many live in rich social networks, where individuals benefit by forming friendships and by cooperating with others.

These capacities endow animal with interests of their own. They are not just living things; they are beings with lives. And that makes all the difference in the world.”

We had a great, ranged discussion about the sorts of things that came up in the book. A lot of us were surprised and delighted by the variety of information and what we learnt about the unique behaviours of certain animals. It stirred discussion about the catch-22 of understanding animal behaviour better through examples resulting from lab research (although many of the examples are from wild studies also). I brought up the question “is is hard for people to accept examples and capacities for emotion/intelligence etc in animals because they’re not at the same ‘level’ as humans”? This book makes the argument that getting past that issue is embracing our Second Nature – coming out of the era of the First Nature, where we use and abuse animals, into a period where we understand the individual animal as just that, and make a connection to beings that are living and deserve to do so, to leave behind our deep-seated prejudices that humans are better than non-humans.

If you’re interested in animal behaviour, society and intelligence, this is worth at least a skim-read! You could also watch Balcombe’s webinar on the subject – MeShell linked it for us in the book club’s group, and she said it covers a lot of the ground the book does. So if you’re into seeing the movie rather than reading the book, perhaps this lecture is for you!


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