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A portrait of a Belgian Malinois.

Animals like this Belgian Malois "aren't just robots—they truly are living, sentient beings," says the author.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Book cover for "Animal Wise" by Virginia Morell.

PHOTOGRAPH OF BOOK JACKET COURTESY VIRGINIA MORELL

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic

Published February 23, 2014

What do animals think and feel? This question, which has long intrigued science writer and author Virginia Morell, is explored in her new book Animal Wise.

Partly inspired by her 2008 National Geographic magazine article, "Animal Minds," the book was just named a finalist for the 2013 L.A. Times Book Prize in Science and Technology.

From ants that teach, to earthworms that make decisions, to rats that love to be tickled, Morell aims to reshape our understanding of animals and their emotions. For the book, she shadowed several innovative scientists investigating the animal psyche, focusing on well-known species such as dolphins and the domestic dog.

We caught up with Morell to ask her about her book and what she wants us to know about what's going on in an animal's head.

How did this book come about?

I've been an animal lover all of my life, and the first book I wrote was a biography of the Leakey family, Ancestral Passions. For that work I went to Gombe Stream National Park to interview Jane Goodall. She thought it was important to spend time watching the chimpanzees, and it was very evident from the first chimpanzee I met that there was a lot going on in their minds. So when I finished the book, I decided to look into the field of evolutionary biology overall.

One of the things evolutionary biologists began to become more and more interested in, in the late '80s and '90s, was evolution of mind—it's not something that appeared because we stepped on the planet. Darwin said evolution didn't just include our physical body, but our emotional side as well. (See pictures of amazingly smart animals.)

The point I try to make at the end of the book is we're on this new frontier—we're recognizing that there are minds in every animal around us on the planet, and how remarkable that is. I would sit and think about that: The little jumping spider in my office, the birds in my yard—everyone has a brain, their neurons are firing, they're making decisions. If nothing else they have places to go and things to do. They're not just stumbling through life as zombies.

Are people surprised by that? What has been your reaction from readers?

I get messages from people that my book changed their lives and opened up a whole new way of looking at the world. Some say, "I can't kill the ants on my kitchen counter anymore." It seems to have opened people's minds and hearts to recognizing that the other animals aren't just robots—they truly are living, sentient beings. What an amazing world we live in, to be surrounded by all these other minds.

What challenges did you discover in observing scientists probing animal minds?

One is to show an animal is planning ahead. You have to come up with really clever experiments. There is also this idea that animals are supposedly stuck in time, that they're only in the present and have no sense of the past and future. Trying to verify if that is the case is one of the challenges that remain.

Certainly showing animals are conscious is still a challenge: First we have to find neurons that create consciousness in people, then [we] can do comparative studies with animals. But right now we don't have a framework in which to study emotions—it's easier to find out if an animal can count.

People are figuring out origins of speech. It will be a huge achievement to show animals have building blocks toward speech and language. (Watch a video of intelligent animals.)

How has this book changed your life? Has it made you a vegetarian, for instance?

I do eat chicken and I eat fish, but not great quantities of each. I've wrestled a lot with this: Our society as a whole is trying to have better relationships with other animals, and we worry about the fact they're sentient.

At the same time we are carnivores and omnivores, and we're going to eat meat. [During book tours and talks], I decided I wasn't going to say, "I'm a vegetarian" just because people want that to be the case ... It [sounds] sanctimonious.

What can we do to make sure animals have good lives? My own concern is much more for the animals in the wild whose habitat we're gobbling up in all directions and making it very difficult for them to live good lives. As humans, can't we do better? We are the dominant force on the planet, and we have to be looking out for them.

Anything else about your book you want to say?

I think it's fun to read. I've been told people laugh out loud at certain things: I think the dolphin-sex chapter is quite illuminating for people.

It's not an intimidating read: The scientists are like my characters. It's storytelling—I tell stories about the scientists and the animals, and I present myself as an everyperson walking into this world and saying, "Wow, this is amazing."

My book tackles the question of what is it like to be a fish, an ant, a parrot, etc. And it also asks what is it like to be an animal behaviorist—to be the person attempting to answer these challenging questions. Who are these scientists? Who is the person who discovered that rats laugh? What made him think the were laughing? They've been used in scientific experiments for more than a hundred years; yet not until Jaak Panksepp watched them did we know that they laugh.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter and Google+.

25 comments
Valerie Heath-Chapman
Valerie Heath-Chapman

I don't  agree with the idea of finding neurons in animals that are similar to humans in order to establish that they are conscious and sentient beings. They may have a totally different set of "neurons" or chemicals or whatever it is that makes them feel, or self aware. I hate how scientist praise the fact that the more "human like" something is the better, more sophisticated or even sentient. We know that animals feel pain so why probe into them to see what they're thinking???? Who cares ? When you figure out that they can think for themselves and understand their environment as it applies to them are you going come up with an experiment to apologize to them for torturing them "in the name of science.?"  Just let us go on anthropomorphizing as we have always done and everyone will be happy.

Valerie Heath-Chapman
Valerie Heath-Chapman

I don't  agree with the idea of finding neurons in animals that are similar to humans in order to establish that they are conscious and sentient beings. They may have a totally different set of "neurons" or chemicals or whatever it is that makes them feel, or self aware. I hate how scientist praise the fact that the more "human like" something is the better, more sophisticated or even sentient. We know that animals feel pain so why probe into them to see what they're thinking???? Who cares ? When you figure out that they can think for themselves and understand their environment as it applies to them are you going come up with an experiment to apologize to them for torturing them "in the name of science.?"  Just let us go on anthropomorphizing as we have always done and everyone will be happy.

Gael Murphy
Gael Murphy

"At the same time we are carnivores and omnivores, and we're going to eat meat."  Wrong!  Every organ system in our bodies-  from our side to side jaw movements in chewing, to our long intestines, show us to be natural herbivores.  This is regardless of the fact that many of us choose to kill animals as though they were food.  "My own concern is much more for the animals in the wild whose habitat we're gobbling up"  Of course he is.  He is clearly personally responsible for the suffering and death of the animals he is ACTUALLY gobbling up!  And for those he experiments on.  He can more easily pretend not to be guilty of harming animals who live in the wild.

Gael Murphy
Gael Murphy

"There is also this idea that animals are supposedly stuck in time, that they're only in the present and have no sense of the past and future. Trying to verify if that is the case is one of the challenges that remain."  Not very scientific!  He should learn whether or NOT this is the case, rather than "verify" that it IS the case.  The fact that he earns his living by experimenting on the other animals in a lab is an insurmountable bias.  If he were to discover that his "animal models" were as aware of time, and as conscious as we are, what would he do?  Stop exploiting them for his own purposes?  He says he did not say he was a vegetarian when he gave lectures because it sounded sanctimonious.  Then, he says he eats hens and fishes.  Maybe he shouldn't say he is vegetarian because it would be a lie!

Antoine BOULLE
Antoine BOULLE

The first picture in this article shows a "belgian malinois" (not a belgian malois), those dogs are really close to german shepherd, though their fur is mostly beige (light clear brown). They're really smart and clever and so nice to live with. Some of them are often 'employed' in the police and customs for their incredible abilities.

ZEINEB MESSAOUDI
ZEINEB MESSAOUDI

nous avons nous, des preuves de tout cela, les fourmis qui donnent des conseils des abeilles qui décident, des araignées qui pensent à se protéger, des arbres qui pleurent, l'oiseau stratège de guerre ...dieu et notre prophète nous en ont parler, donc je la crois et je suis heureuse de constater qu'il y a des scientifiques qui peuvent prouver ce qui était jusque là que des légende et mythes partout dans le monde   

Landry Li
Landry Li

It's amazing, and I just know animals have thoughts,but I never thought their thoughts are so various and wonderful.I'd like to read the book.

Sivasubbu Meenakshisundaram
Sivasubbu Meenakshisundaram

This is wonderful! I am trying more to learn about humans only in me! Wonderful. Let me try the other living animals too! 

Margo Morrison
Margo Morrison

I just have to look in my little IGs eyes to know she's thinking and reacting to what I'm saying.

Vince Williams
Vince Williams

Some of the various cerebral abilities in humans and their lack in other animals doesn't really determine consciousness. I think until science has it firmly established what consciousness is, that designation for animals can't be made. For example, do animals sleep? And is that being "UNconscious"? Is consciousness being wakeful and able to deal with and/or control one's welfare (or desires and needs), whether it be flying, eating, pursuing, fleeing, mating and so forth? For four years a wild robin I named BOB flew to my lap to eat meal worms. Most robins (practically all of them) won't do that. Was BOB conscious? When you have provided a satisfactory definition, you might be able to answer. However, it is my suspicion that will be more difficult than most people think.

Menos Paam
Menos Paam

Right, the author is worried about animals "outside" but not about factory farms.  If animals are sentient, you can't justify treating them horribly and killing them just to satisfy your greedy mouth.  This author is like a scientist who showed that black people were just as intelligent as other races but continued supporting slavery because she didn't want to sound "sanctimonious."  Funny how you can be on the right side of science but the wrong side of history.

m s
m s

I really don't think that they'll find the neurons that make consciousness in human brains because it's an emergent property. Consciousness I don't think is quantifiable physically so I don't really see them discovering that animals plan out their day.

Virginia Morell
Virginia Morell expert

@Real African You're so right about Temple Grandin, and I love her books. There very well may be some similarities between the way that animals and autistic people see the world. But Temple also loves my book, and thinks the scientists I met are on the right track. She wrote a lovely blurb for the back of my book: "After you read this book, you will be convinced that many different animal species have true thoughts and emotions. You will take a journey to the center of the animal mind."

Elise Villemaire
Elise Villemaire

@Gael Murphy This author, Virginia Morell, only claims to be an "animal loving" journalist, not a scientist, though SHE remains willing to eat animals brutally raised only for their meat. She probably has little training with the processes of scientific experimentation, but does know how to successfully "shadow" to get her story.

This is only an article about her award winning book, so we probably shouldn't get too 'sanctimonious' without first reading that book. (And I'm sadly not even a vegetarian anyway.)

huang qian
huang qian

@Landry Li  me too,although i have a litter known of this,i still like to read the  book

Virginia Morell
Virginia Morell expert

@Margo Morrison Thanks, Margo. Most of us feel exactly the same way. In my book, I explain how my first dog's invention of a game made me realize that she had an imagination. Scientists have those kinds of gut feelings, too -- but then they have to figure how to show/prove what they feel. That's what the researchers I met for my book are doing, or trying to do.


Virginia Morell
Virginia Morell expert

@Vince Williams I agree, Vince, that it's not possible to say what consciousness is; it is not a well-defined term. Until it is, we can't even explain what consciousness is in humans-- let alone other animals.

Virginia Morell
Virginia Morell expert

@Menos Paam Only a small portion of the interview is shown here; it is, as the editor notes, condensed from our longer discussion. We talked about many of the ways that animals are abused and mistreated, including factory farms--and how we need to be concerned about all of these issues. You might want to read my book, especially the last chapter.


Cyril Gros
Cyril Gros

@Menos Paam  "I decided I wasn't going to say, "I'm a vegetarian" just because people want that to be the case ... It [sounds] sanctimonious."
Try and understand what you read. She decided not to be an hypocrite pretending to be a vegetarian just because that's what people would expect of her, that's what said could be perceived as sanctimonious. You know just as your comment sounds. Funny how some vegetarian thinks they know better and absolutely have to despise everybody that doesn't agree with them. My sister's has been a vegetarian for most of her life for moral reason, she's a complete animal lover but she still cooks meat for her husband. Before asking people to respect animal rights and vegetarian respect others. Comparing meat eater to enslavement is just pure stupidity. Some ants "cultivate" aphids as a food source like we do with animals. Unnecessary cruelty is to be banned of course but a way more respectful of nature is possible. The thing is before even considering it mentalities have to change, yours included. It's not by bashing insulting and disrespecting people that you'll accomplish anything for your cause, on the contrary the more disrespectful you'll be the easier you'll be categorized as a nutjob with no important things to say.

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