Smarter Than We Think: A Reading List on Animal Intelligence
Ned Beauman Recommends Thom van Dooren, Temple Grandin, And More
This is a boom time for books about animal intelligence. It feels like every day I see a review of a book called something like Furry Mensa—the Remarkable Brains of All Those Little Guys Running Around Out There. No book in this genre is ever going to be truly bad, because animal intelligence is like art forgery or Stalin’s Russia, it’s just such an inherently rich and interesting subject that all the author must do is write down a series of facts about it and you’re guaranteed a pretty good time. However, having consulted a lot of these books while researching my new novel Venomous Lumpsucker, I can report that the ones that get the most press are not necessarily the best ones, in the same way that prairie dogs have the most complex language on earth but it’s still dolphins who get all the hype.
Jonathan Balcombe, What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins
This book barely seems to have been reviewed anywhere, but it’s the one I recommend most often. And that’s not because I had any fervent interest in fish before I read it. But Balcombe has such an engaging style, and the density of incredible facts is so high, and there’s so little time wasted plodding through the basics (“Did you know there was once a German horse that they thought could do maths, but actually—it couldn’t do maths???!!!!”), that the result is an exceptional book.
James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould, Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence
Show, don’t tell. If you’re writing about how beavers are highly intelligent, I don’t just want to hear that they make very impressive dams; I want to know exactly how impressive those dams are, in very granular detail, the more the better, to the point that I can’t really follow it, even with the help of the accompanying diagrams, despite the fact that my brain is supposed to be about thirty times larger than a beaver’s.
You know how sometimes dog owners will say things like, “Yesterday my dog did something so clever I could hardly believe it?” Naska, my 3-year-old Havanese, has never in his entire life done anything to provoke that response. Nevertheless, I am interested in what, if anything, is going behind that handsome face, and this is one of the essential books on the subject.
Temple Grandin is much famous in the US than she is here in the UK so it may be redundant for me to recommend this, but I will anyway, because it’s really good. I am fascinated by the moral dynamics of Grandin’s consulting work for the slaughterhouse industry: a person with a preternatural empathy for animals, deeply enmeshed in a hell-world of animal suffering. I don’t know what novelist could have come up with that, apart from maybe Graham Greene.
Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction
My novel Venomous Lumpsucker is about species extinction, and along with Elizabeth Kolbert’s work, this is some of the best writing I’ve read on the subject. Schopenhauer declared that, “Unlike man, animals live without knowing death,” but in his account of the nearly-extinct Hawaiian crow, Thom van Dooren argues that these creatures are perfectly capable of mourning. So if one dead crow is a tragedy to other crows, what is the end of their whole species?
Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies
Not all encounters with non-human intelligence are encounters with animals. We may or may not get to talk to aliens one day, but we will certainly talk to sentient computer programs—maybe pretty soon! Bostrom could have called this The Culture Clash, because he’s making a similar point to Jean Donaldson: It’s tempting to assume that unfamiliar minds work more or less like ours, but that assumption can lead us terribly astray. When it’s a dog, the worst-case scenario is that he chews up your shoes; when it’s an AI, the worst-case scenario is that it exterminates the human race.
Venomous Lumpsucker by Ned Beauman is available from Soho Press.