Animal Wise – How we know what animals think and feel

Morell_Animal WisePUBLISHING YEAR: 2014

SUMMARY: Review of the latest research into animal cognition: feeling and thinking animals under the microscope.

AUDIENCE: Written for the layman and reasonably jargon-free. Academics in need of a broad survey of the literature would also benefit from it. And animal behaviour professionals will get sweeping overview of what is now known about animal cognition out of it. The review below does get technical, though.


The author: Virginia Morell is a big time science writer. She writes for National Geographic and Science. This was reflected in the book’s budget, which allowed us to speak to animal cognition research stars all over the world in this gem of a book.

Style and contents: Virginia Morell tells us of the big milestones in animal cognition research. She does not systematically review the discipline (an impossible task for a pocket book) but talks to the most influencial researchers in fish, bird, dolphin, elephant, chimp and of course dog and wolf cognition. She popularizes complex concepts without sacrificing accuracy, tackling things like teaching, verbal language, suffering, play and laughter and training with brio.


I thoroughly enjoyed the book. And here’s why:

  • In Animal Wise, I read some of the best summaries I’d ever read on the history of animal behaviour, and animal personality research respectively.
  • The chapter on dogs and wolves was fabulous. Coming from me, this means a lot. She did focus a lot on Adam Miklosi’s team, but also covered Horowitz‘ and Hare‘s work. She did a brilliant job at bringing the Eotvos lab to life.

As a professional science writer, Virginia Morell knew how to charm AND educate. The chapters were smoothly interconnected, and she introduced the researchers in human terms, briefly talking of their personality and appearance to set the scene. She also came up with some hilarious turns of phrase:

  • In this one, where she describes one of the researchers she approached (chapter 1): “Like a scientist, he is single-minded in both work and dress.”
  • Talking of a “Wiley coati” in a passage on ants anti-predatory strategies (chapter 1)

But one of my favorite aspects of the book is how profoundly it resonated with me, or even consolidated into new insights:

  • Arresting discussions on the demons of anthropomorphism and the ethical consequences of animals’ cognitive abilities, respectively.
  • Finally! An author who understands that evolution does not have fit in some grand teleological scheme and that it is ludicrous to talk of ‘advanced’ or ‘superior’ animals in a directionless system. This call for caution was repeated throughout the book.
  • I was familiar with the idea that learning was not limited to vertebrates (what with classic studies on sea slugs, for example), but it had never dawned on me that this was not limited to the animal kingdom: bacteria also show evidence of learning.
  • Joining learning/conditioning concepts during the animal’s lifetime and on an evolutionary scale through the epigenetics and/or random mutations of neurons was a clever twist. One also made in The Science of Consequences.

The book left me with a trail of mouth-watering references that I can’t wait to check out:

Possible improvement:

Ever the tough customer, I felt a tad uncomfortable with minor points. All in all, it’s a great book and I only added this possible improvement section out of convention. I really had to split hair to find things to improve. But here comes:

  • Talking of ‘animal spirit’ in the introduction nearly made me want to set the book aside. Thankfully, I read on. Working with animal behaviour, I have my fair share of hippie-dippyism to deal with in real life. I go to science popularization books for solace, not for more new agisms. But then again, I am so rigorous in these matters that I hardly think I represent the average reader.
  • Suggesting Darwin’s “Expression of emotions in man and animals” and “Descent of man” are good primers in cognitive ethology was surprising. I found them dense and speculative – typical of Darwin’s time. They make for a poor source of reliable information, steeped as they are in speculation and were not exactly written for the reader’s pleasure. Reading these books will satisfy your historical curiosity rather than consolidate your grasp of cognitive ethology, I fear.
  • Comparing the unobservability of theoretical physics to that of inner mental mechanism is a common, albeit incorrect in my view, argument. Theoretical physics are strongly supported by internally consistent mathematical proofs. They are unscrutinizable to the common mortal, but that does not mean they are not based on solid evidence or logic. Especially with so many real-life applications relying on their correctness (mobile phones anyone?). I continue to call for extreme rigour when we examine the minds of animals, for we bring the field into disrepute.
  • The chapter on captive dolphins in various sea life centres did not ask enough critical questions about the welfare of these captive dolphins, in my view. I was appalled by the stories of untimely deaths and chronic disease.
  • Uncritically accepting Belyaev’s claims of pleitropy between tameness and a piebald coat is a little disappointing, as this relation was only weak in the original paper (Trut, 1999).
  • Whilst her criticism of Morgan’s Canon exposes the bias towards explanations that underestimate an animal’s cognitive abilities, she went too far for my liking. After all, we don’t want to rid the field of all sensible standards – but she made a valid point.

The verdict: I adored this book. It was rigorous, but written in lively prose. It covered just the right scope of cognition milestones, at just the right level of details. It is also still recent (2014), and its chapter on dogs is a thing of beauty. So I would advice you waste no time and hop to the bookstore for this one. It will be making waves.

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Author: Morell Virginia
Genre: survey of peer-reviewed literature
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