Ashley Ward, The Social Lives of Animals (2022)
Author: Ashley Ward
Title: The Social Lives of Animals
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.