Ashley Ward, The Social Lives of Animals (2022)

Ashley Ward, The Social Lives of Animals (2022)

Author: Ashley Ward

Title: The Social Lives of Animals

Format: e-book

Pages: 384

Series: –

The first book of 2023, yay!

Ward’s The Social Lives of Animals delivers exactly what it promises – a highly interesting, sometimes humorous, sometimes dead serious account on the social aspects of animal lives. It’s a very good popular science book, full of fun facts and anecdotes made more engrossing by the fact that many of them were witnessed first-hand by the author. As Ward is a professor of biology, there is a certain hierarchy detectable in the storytelling, a slow journey through the animal kingdom following the growing social complexity of behaviour: from the invertebrate toward vertebrates, and among these, from fish to mammals. The natural science lens is visible in other aspects of the book, as well – Ward judiciously spices his account with more scientific terms, taking care to explain what each means and why it is important. It is a highly entertaining, educational book and while maybe a tad less jaw-dropping and more anecdotal than I expected, it’s still a great resource for those interested in animal ethology. Ward is a great storyteller and possesses a wealth of data he itches to share with everybody. His enthusiasm is palpable, as is his knowledge. There’s humour, horror, sadness and joy, and loads of fun facts about a host of animals as varied as krill, termites, humpback whales, cockroaches, gorillas and vampire bats. I, for once, will never look at tits (erm, the birds) the same way.

The one element that I found truly tiresome, and which also seems to stem from Ward’s biological science background, is the constant hedging around animal emotional states, consciousness and the terrible sin (gasp!) of ascribing human categories to animals. If it looks like grief, feels like grief, smells like grief, and most notably has all the contextual signs of grief, maybe it is grief? Why would the act of ascribing basic human emotions and states to highly evolved animals such as elephants, apes, and cetaceans be more erroneous than not doing this and hedging behind stupid descriptions – and denying animals their cognitive abilities or worse, sentience, in the process – is simply beyond me. I am tired of biological sciences clinging desperately to their inaccessible ideal of objectivity. Go ahead, get as close to it as you can, that’s a worthy goal. But stop pretending you can actually get there! I much prefer de Waal’s approach, who is the first to admit we might simply be too stupid to really understand animals – but that shouldn’t mean we have the right to demean them. Ward, on the other hand, goes to lengths to emphasise that his emotions and observations are unscientific and that there is no consensus in biology when it comes to animal sentience or emotions. He thankfully drops the act when talking about chimpanzees and bonobos, and by then it would be really hard not to, as the apes are increasingly recognized by the scientific community not only as our genetic cousins, but as our  behavioural and social family, too.

The Social Lives of Animals served also as an intriguing counterpoint to Bitch, which focused almost solely, and sometimes even, it seems, vengefully, on females of the species. In many cases both books described the same species, be they orcas, bonobos, termites, etc., but did it in somewhat divergent terms. Ward focused on the complexity of social relations and the material substrates of why these social relations grew to be the way they are, paying more attention to the species as a whole, a sort of cooperative between the sexes. Cooke, on the other hand, looked for specific instances where females, for a variety of reasons, had the upper hand in what she perceives more as the war of the sexes than the cooperation. These two perspectives formed a surprising whole in the end, though, and I’m happy I was able to compare them and access the information in both. Ward also adds a lengthy bibliography at the end, which is a rare and welcome supplement for all those who want more detail ;).

All in all, a great popular science book, engaging, entertaining, educational and accessible, which I can wholeheartedly recommend to all interested in biology, behavioural sciences, and animals in general. 

Ah, and word for the wise: if anybody offers to greet you the lobster way, decline.

I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.

Score: 9/10

26 thoughts on “Ashley Ward, The Social Lives of Animals (2022)

  1. That thing about behavioral biologists not wanting to discuss emotions in other animals, that was hammered into me when I was studying biology at university. It was not done to attribute emotions or intent to the animals that we studied, because that lead to a swamp of biases and false projections. The only thing that a behavioral biologist should do, we were told, is to classify elements of behavior and try to think about immediate and evolutionary causes for this behavior.

    This struck me as extremely limited from the beginning. If we, as human beings, have bodies that were shaped by evolution, then surely our mental and emotional faculties must also be a product of evolution. Emotions have survival functions too. If humans behave a certain way when we feel a certain emotion, and when an animal like a dog or a horse behaves in a similar way, why would it be not done to think that a similar emotion underlies that behavior?

    But the winds of opinion are changing, but slowly. Frans de Waal played an important role in this. He led the way in trying to understand the world of other animals on a deeper level than simply scoring behavior. What we previously considered “uniquely human”, has been present in similar forms in other animals. We are not that special.

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    1. Thete’s also another factor, namely psychologists being increasingly aware that emotions are physical systems that evolved, and so are not unlike similar systems in animals. I reviewed a book by Jaak Panksepp that´s partly about that a couple of years ago.

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      1. There’s many factors I haven’t touched upon because it makes me want to rant 😉 As I said to Jeroen, it just boggles my mind that despite all the evidence of the last decades the academia is still so desperately attached to the state of knowledge that is clearly no longer correct. I guess that’s one of the cases for Kuhn’s scientific revolutions: we need to wait for the change of the tide.

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        1. From my pov, the chance is well underway. Basically all biology books I´ve read the last 5 years – all academic – hold the newer view. And also outside of academia: I´ve read a Times article about how animals grieve over 10 years ago. I think the influence of De Wael and his ilk, also in academia, is not to be underestimated, but obviously some old time professors will not budge.

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          1. I thought so too, until I’ve read a few popular science books last year. Plus, Jeroen is not that old ;), and that’s what’s been pummelled into him in academia when he was studying! I’ve read about grieving animals probably around the same time you did, and yet for the academic circles it was probably a simplistic, non-scientific piece of pop culture for the ‘animal lovers.’ I guess I’m just impatient for the change I see not only as inevitable but also right. Of course, then animal experiments would face more scrutiny, which might be not welcome not only by educational institutions but also business.

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    2. It’s just dumb, really. I am really astounded that despite mounting evidence and growing understanding of evolutionary roots of emotions and thought process (strategic thinking, grasp on the temporal, etc.) biologists still refuse to see that the difference between humans and other animals is quantitative rather than qualitative. Ward writes fascinating stuff about orcas’ variety of cultures, but is very careful not to call it ‘cultures.’ He labels his own feelings and observations on the matter, which are more in line with De Waal’s approach, i.e. attributing emotions and sentience to animals, as ‘unscientific.’ It’s mind-boggling that academia can be so ossified and desperately clinging to stuff that’s patently not true, and that many leading scientists are afraid or coy to speak their mind because they fear being labeled ‘unscientific,’ ‘romantic,’ or even ‘naive.’ And that’s what we call science! 😛

      I really long for the day when science is ready to admit to its own biases and assumptions.

      That’s the end of my rant for today, thanks, Jeroen! 😀

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      1. I don’t think it’s a question of not true or not scientific or even of dumb. Ethologists want to be careful and work in the way that they are certain that they don’t drift into fields that are beyond their knowledge base. It’s simply that they don’t know how to integrate psychological or sociological science into their own scientific field without making a giant leap in assumptions. This growing understanding of emotions is still new and a very complex thing and needs far more time to integrate into behavioral biology than the one or two decades that we’ve been toying with it. I understand why biologists are careful with it, and the theoretical foundations have to be worked out to a far larger extent than they are now to get many of these ethologists to let go of their safe approach. I wouldn’t call them dumb, just careful of what they think they are unclear about.

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        1. I understand your take and agree – mostly 😉 I guess that I mostly take umbrage with this approach because I feel that it has far-reaching ethical ramifications that are rarely spoken about. This approach allows for keeping a safe psychological distance from the animals that are being observed and experimented upon. It allows the biologists to often take an exalted perspective, and the reluctance to admit that animals may feel the same way we do, or may be sentient, can also stem from the ethical doubts concerning animal rights and wellbeing, as well as the big question of intervention/non-intervention. I think it’s easier to keep to the old ways, also because the new ways may not be entirely confirmed, bit I also feel like the ossified institution of academia, where the average usually gets more promoted, hampers the growth and limits the opportunity of furthering our understanding of animals – and us. I honesty don’t see how the integration of emotions and attribution of these emotions to animals would negatively affect biology as a science.

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          1. “I guess that I mostly take umbrage with this approach because I feel that it has far-reaching ethical ramifications that are rarely spoken about.” THIS x100. Absolutely. “Slow and careful” is euphemistic for “let’s not rock the boat from our position of privilege.” Plain and simple. But ‘animals aren’t people’ cry the opposition. ‘False equivalency.’ No, it’s the equivalency of moral and ethical obligation.

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            1. 100%, carol. It’s a moral obligation of each individual and of humans as a species. I know we’re going in the right direction, generally, and we are slowly realizing that sentience/consciousness and certain kinship of life goes beyond our imminent tribe/nation/ethnic group or even species, but it is a slog and I think the onus of accelerating and popularizing that change in our highly professionalized culture is largely on the scientists.

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  2. As Jeroen says, “We are not that special,” and I (a non-scientist, by the way) agree. The only thing that seems to distinguish human emotions from those of other species is that we have words for them and can label them. I wonder how Ward would have characterised My Octopus Teacher, for instance?

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    1. I actually hated that movie because it confirmed that ‘high-and-mighty’ approach of humans to animals. The author was clearly aware of the fact that the octopus not only acknowledged his presence but treated him as an ally. And yet, when she was attacked, he did nothing even though it would’ve cost him nothing as the sharks were not dangerous to him. Even whales come to rescue to other species in need. That guy didn’t lift a finger. Looks like whales might be more empathetic than him.

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      1. That’s a tricky fence to sit on, isn’t it, between not interfering because – well, science blah ethics blah blah – and involvement and intervention because it’s empathy for another living being.

        I suppose the principle of not interfering is born from fears of neocolonialism and religious conversion and stuff like that, plus issues surrounding invasive species and unbalancing delicate ecosystems; but then there’s the influence of the observer effect on the observed, and the notion of the superior being or deity not intervening when injustice is done…

        The whole thing is just a huge elephant trap for the unwary individual who wants to do the right thing, like in the fable of the Man, the Boy and the Donkey…

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        1. I don’t know about it, Chris. I feel like it’s a moral question, not an environmental one. This case in The Octopus Teacher was very clear-cut for me. And as you say, by observing and being observed we’re already interfering. Do you remember the case of the photograph by Kevin Carter from the Bang Bang Club for which he got the Pulitzer Prize? It is maybe an extreme comparison, but I’d argue it is valid – particularly because the explanations and justifications follow the same pattern in both cases. I do not make the comparison of the value of life and/or guilt in each case, I just want to point out structual similarites.

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          1. I didn’t know about the Kevin Carter case – I’ve now looked it up – and I see what you’re trying to say in making the comparison. And it’s a lot clearer than my rambling thoughts above!

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          2. “And as you say, by observing and being observed we’re already interfering.” This. Again, with explanation points. Does the predator feel more comfortable? Is the prey behavior already stressed? All these things. Personally, I feel like the scale of human destruction, both purposeful and accidental is so gigantic, that my interference on my singular person, small-scale, fall of a sparrow, tossing starfish in the ocean, etc., does nothing on a species level, but means everything to the individual–and my own humanity.

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            1. Exactly, on the individual level it seems to me it is a question of morality, not ecology. And it’s particularly noticeable in those relationships with animals that aren’t simply chance meetings, but last through time. I feel like there is a moral obligation stemming from knowing the other, be it a human or an animal. We are saving animals trapped in a spilled oil because we take direct responsibility for the catastrophe. But we’re not seeing that our species’ domination of Earth had changed the balance everywhere. We are the factor of change and because of this, we are responsible. It’s not a call to save every last ant and cow (disclaimer: I’m not a vegetarian, only a flexitarian ;)) but to acknowledge our own impact on the world around us.

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  3. For some reason, I kept thinking of the book Fuzz by Mary Roach as I read your review here. It’s about animals too, but the focus is different – on animal interaction with the law, I think. I haven’t yet read it. But I have a feeling that I probably heard of The Social Lives of Animals around when I learned about Fuzz. It just sounds familiar and like a book I’d be interested in.

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  4. Thanks for a fascinating review. I often stay away from animal books because of the biologist-cognition problem, or because they end up being just about the human (hello, Sid whats-your-name), so I’ll have to check this one out.

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    1. Thank you, carol.! This book is very interesting, and really worth reading. Besides a wealth of animal-related facts delivered with clear love for the subject it’s also fascinating due to how the author visibly struggles with the dictates of ‘science’ versus his own conscience when it comes to granting animals emotions and sentience.

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    1. Thanks, Lashaan! It’s a great book for anyone who’s interested in our animal brethren! My inner teacher doesn’t want to let go, so I demand more from those I deem capable of more 🤣

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