Book Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal (2017)

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Review 2.18


What separates your mind from an animal’s? Maybe you think it’s your ability to design tools, your sense of self, or your grasp of past and future—all traits that have helped us define ourselves as the planet’s preeminent species. But in recent decades, these claims have eroded, or even been disproven outright, by a revolution in the study of animal cognition. Take the way octopuses use coconut shells as tools; elephants that classify humans by age, gender, and language; or Ayumu, the young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University whose flash memory puts that of humans to shame. Based on research involving crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, bats, whales, and of course chimpanzees and bonobos, Frans de Waal explores both the scope and the depth of animal intelligence. He offers a firsthand account of how science has stood traditional behaviorism on its head by revealing how smart animals really are, and how we’ve underestimated their abilities for too long. [Source]

Last year I read Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist, which asked whether or not animals are capable of demonstrating selflessness and empathy towards themselves and towards us. I wasn’t a huge fan of that book, partially because anyone who has spent even a small amount of time observing the animal world will tell you that the answer is a resounding “Duh”.

I was unaware at the time that there is a surprising amount of resistance to the idea of altruism in the animal kingdom. For decades the idea of true animal awareness was laughed out of universities and scientific journals. Man, it seems, needs to maintain a moral superiority over morality itself.

In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, de Waal begins by lambasting his fellow scientists in a highly informative and highly enjoyable tirade against modern testing methods. He lists study after study designed to test the difference in cognitive abilities between toddlers and apes that failed, not due a fault of intelligence on behalf of the ape, but by unfair testing standards. For example, toddlers were tested while sitting on their mothers lap in a warm and comfortable environment, with scientists there to reassure them. The apes were alone in a steel cage, with no explanation of the test or comfort from the testers. Until recent years it was considered unprofessional even to give personal names to the “test subjects”.

De Waal is a passionate advocate for animal rights. After thoroughly beating his colleagues about the head in the first part of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he then begins giving case study after case study of animals that not only rivaled our own intelligence, but often surpassed it.

My favorite thing about this book is that it is not ape-centric. We have long ago learned to recognize a thinking mind behind the eyes of a chimpanzee, an orangutan, or a gorilla. But what about a crow? Any pet owner will gush about how smart their dog is, but is can their intelligence be measured using any kind of objective scale that we understand? Cats, elephants, dolphins, and monkeys all get their place in this book, as well as less “traditionally” intelligent animal such as cuttlefish. I loved the section on the octopus, which is my favorite animal to show off to my science students.

in The Bonobo and the Atheist, I felt that de Waal struggled to stay on topic. He would give a few interesting anecdotes about the animal world, and then pause for a discussion on medieval art, or the rise of atheism. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is more tightly edited, and jumps merrily from subject to subject while maintaining the central theme that animals are capable of more than we ever thought possible.

I love animals. I love learning interesting things about animals. If you love learning interesting things about animals, you will enjoy this book.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Sean Runnette and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski (1986)


Review 2.16


A Door into Ocean is the novel upon which the author’s reputation as an important SF writer principally rests. A ground-breaking work both of feminist SF and of world-building hard SF, it concerns the Sharers of Shora, a nation of women on a distant moon in the far future who are pacifists, highly advanced in biological sciences, and who reproduce by parthenogenesis–there are no males–and tells of the conflicts that erupt when a neighboring civilization decides to develop their ocean world, and send in an army. [Source]

Unlike many genres, science fiction and fantasy writers often face the uphill task of world building. If the story is set anywhere other than the planet Earth, and concerns any characters that aren’t human, it’s the author’s arduous task to make this place have weight and meaning in our imaginations.

This can be a difficult balancing act, because instead of jumping right into the plot, science fiction first requires that the reader understand the “rules” of this particular universe. I say this because some critics (including some in my book club) became frustrated by A Door into Ocean due to its rather slow exposition. And it does take more than fifty pages for the planet of Shora to even make an appearance. First, Slonczewski has to establish the two worlds.

A Door into Ocean will draw inevitable and accurate comparison to novels such as Dances with Wolves, or films like Avatar and Disney’s Pocahontas. Often called the “white savior” trope, these stories all share a basic narrative structure. An outsider from a more “advanced” culture will come to a world populated by “savages”. Over time the outsider will become more and more drawn to the natural and pure ways of the natives, and in the process will betray his own people, who are often ruthless, violent, and mercenary. This is not a criticism. There are only so many stories to be told in the world; what separates good novels from the merely mediocre is the author’s ability to bring an old story to life in a new and interesting way.

Joan Slonczewski succeeds in this area by making her novel a sort of philosophical thought experiment on the nature of pacifism. Populated solely by women and daughters, the ocean world of Shora has been left untouched for millennia. The “Sharers” have a disorganized, almost anarchist society that has no concept of obedience, and therefore no concept of resistance. As the invading “malefreaks” attempt to impose martial law on the planet, the questions remains if the Sharers will remain true to their nonviolent history, turn to a violent future, or be wiped off the face of Shora entirely.

Even though it takes awhile to get there,  the planet of Shora is a fascinating and dangerous place. It is no idyllic paradise, and the dangers faced by the Sharers by their own natural environment gives the narrative a surge in excitement once it finally sets down on the ocean world.

The thing I love about good science fiction is the interesting discussions it can spark. I’ll enjoy chewing over the ideas presented by A Door into Ocean for the next couple of days to see what I uncover.

My rating: 4/5

You can find A Door into Ocean here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (2016)

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Review 2.15

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more. 

Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work. [Source]

If you’re lucky, outside your window you will be able to see at least one tree. What kind of tree is it? How old is it? When was the last time you really paid any attention at all to the goings on of this tree?

In LabGirl, noted biogeologist Hope Jahren asks us to take a closer look at the plants that share our Earth. In part, her memoir is a love letter to the grasses, flowers, and trees which are so necessary to life on this planet and yet are so often overlooked or disregarded. These sections, in which Jahren speaks with an enraptured voice on the many fascinating aspects of the botanical world, are what works about LabGirl.

From the introduction, Jahren makes the case that anyone who observes something interesting about the natural world is officially a scientist. Children are born scientists, exploring and cataloging their environment with every sense they possess. It’s only as we get older that science becomes an intimidating, closed-off world with its own secret rules and language. Girls in particular often feel discouraged when entering STEM fields because they are given little respect or acknowledgement. Jahren’s struggles trying to scratch out a niche for herself in the scientific community are some of the funniest and more infuriating part of this book.

What doesn’t work so well is Bill. Bill is Jahren’s closest friend, valued colleague, and general right-hand man. A large portion of the novel is given over to how important Bill is, what a good friend he is, and how Jahren just couldn’t survive without him. The problem was I just didn’t get it. I could not for the life of me figure out why she is so enamored by Bill. Far be it from me to say that two friends are mismatched, but I almost felt like Jahren forces my hand by focusing so much of her narrative on how impossibly wonderful this person is. It started to feel less like a working relationship between scientists and more like two codependent people clinging together for no other reason than that they know no other way to exist.

I’ve always loved science in a “stars are pretty” kind of way, though I readily admit that the technical aspects go right over my head. I would recommend LabGirl for anyone interested learning more about plants and the scientists who study them.

A quick note on the Audible version. The audio book for LabGirl is narrated by the author, and makes for an uneven listening experience. Jahren is obviously going to be personally moved when detailing her own past experiences, but one more than one occasion she sounds as if she is going to burst into tears. During other sections when she is waxing romantic about her relationship with her colleague, her voice takes on a soporific effect that had me nodding off. A large portion of the book deals with Jahren’s ongoing battle with bipolar disorder, so perhaps the tone was an intentional choice made by the author and publisher. Either way, I found it jarring.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find LabGirl here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.  The Audible version is narrated by the author and can be downloaded here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann (2009)


Review 2.13

In 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization, hoping to make one of the most important discoveries in history. For centuries Europeans believed the world’s largest jungle concealed the glittering kingdom of El Dorado. Thousands had died looking for it, leaving many scientists convinced that the Amazon was truly inimical to humans. But Fawcett, whose daring expeditions inspired Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, had spent years building his scientific case. Captivating the imagination of millions round the globe, Fawcett embarked with his 21-year-old son, determined to prove that this ancient civilization–which he dubbed Z–existed. Then his expedition vanished. Fawcett’s fate, & the tantalizing clues he left behind about Z, became an obsession for hundreds who followed him into the uncharted wilderness. [Source]

For centuries, the Amazon jungle has represented the some of the greatest examples of man’s hubris. Countless explorers, adventurers, cartographers, and scientists have ventured grandly into this impenetrable rainforest never to be seen again.  The Lost City of Z is a biography of one such individual, a man whose obsession with finding the ruins of an advanced civilization in the Amazon consumed both his personal and professional life. In his debut novel author David Grann attempts to retrace Fawcett’s path, both historically using letters and journals and literally by flying to Brazil and embarking on a trek through the Amazonian region.

Grann’s novel will draw inevitable comparison to Douglas Preston’s The Lost City of the Monkey God, which I read and reviewed last year. The difference is that while Monkey God is the story of a region and all the countless expeditions that had failed, City of Z is the more personal story of one man and his restless desire to find a hidden culture. Both novels were highly successful in convincing this reader never to visit the Amazon rainforest. One of the phrases that I enjoyed from The Lost City of Z described the area as a “counterfeit paradise”. The lush vegetation and abundant life of the jungle conceals a surprisingly lack of food, and what wildlife there is seems specifically designed to inflict the most discomfort possible before killing you.

While there are numerous disgusting descriptions scattered through this novel, it still a straightforward biography rather than an exciting book of exploration. Grann refuses to speculate on or romanticize the fate of his subjects. The bulk of City of Z is a more or less straightforward account of Fawcett’s various expeditions into the Amazon and the efforts of his fellow explorers to find him after his disappearance. The reminder of the book is an interesting and occasionally humorous first-hand account of Grann’s preparations for jungle travel and his eventual attempt to retrace Fawcett’s last known trail.

While The Lost City of Z was not the thrilling adventure novel advertised by it’s book jacket, I nevertheless found myself intrigued by the story of Fawcett and his ill-fated adventures. Only in recent years, with remote satellite and lidar technology, are we even coming close to forming a definitive picture of the secrets hidden under the Amazonian canopy. Perhaps more evidence of this ancient civilization will be discovered with time.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Lost City of Z here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Mark Deakins and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

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Review #70

The Earth is dying, wrecked and ravaged by humanity. A last group of surviving humans set out on the cargo ship Gilgamesh, beginning a desperate mission to find a new home. Frozen in stasis, they travel for centuries towards a distant solar system and find a wonderful treasure from the past, a planet terraformed and prepared for human life by the humans of the Old Empire. The crew of the Gilgamesh approach the planet with a new sense of hope, only to find that the planet is already occupied by their worst nightmares.

This novel spans thousands of years, beginning as the Old Empire approaches its destruction. Doctor Avrana Kern is putting the final touches on Kern’s World, a planet she has designed to harbor a unique form of intelligent life. Disaster strikes when a crew member decides that Kern does not deserve to play god, and sabotages the ship, killing himself and the experiments that were destined for the planet. Avrana Kern finds herself alone in a small satellite, watching her life’s work burn as it enters the planet’s atmosphere. She enters a cryogenic sleep chamber in the hopes that a passing ship will find her at some point in the future. Unknown to her, something has survived the burning of the ship, and will eventually evolve into a new and monstrous form of life.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s science fiction novel can be summed up in three words. Giant. Sentient. Spiders. As a lifelong arachnophobe, the early chapters of Children of Time, with their numerous descriptions of spider legs, spider palps, and spider fangs, gave me the serious creeps. But after the initial ick factor wore off, I found myself oddly intrigued by the descriptions of spider society presented in this novel. The spiders begin to evolve from the simpleminded predators that we have today into a true society. They develop language, culture, and technology that will allow them to contact the Messenger, the satellite orbiting their planet. They also engage in warfare, discover religion (and religious persecution) and begin to unravel the mystery of their own existence. Tchaikovsky should be applauded for his descriptions of the spider civilization. It is no easy task to convincingly write non-humanoid characters that feel “real”, especially if those characters are something that our minds naturally see as disgusting. I haven’t rooted so much for a spider’s well-being since Charlotte’s Web.

Another amazing thing about this novel is the way that Tchaikovsky manages to interweave a narrative that spans millennia in a very straightforward and linear fashion. As we watch the spiders evolve and grow their society, we also follow the crew of the Gilgamesh as they develop their own unique culture aboard the ship. Our primary protagonist among the humans is Holsten Mason, the resident “classicist” whose function is to interpret the language of the ancient Old Empire. He emerges from stasis at various intervals throughout time, and watches as the crew of the Gilgamesh fall prey to so many of the same follies that have plagued humanity since the beginning. Arrogance, selfishness, and megalomania are still entrenched in the human psyche, and Mason is there to testify that even though humans have managed to destroy their own planet, they may not have learned from the experience. Many science fiction writers take a rather pessimistic view of mankind, and Tchaikovsky is no exception. He does instill a pervading sense of hope throughout the novel; as flawed as humanity is he definitely sees the possibility of redemption.

This was a beautifully written novel that challenges our preconceived notions about what it means to be human. I truly enjoyed this book.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Children of Time here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!


Book Review: The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal (2013)

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Review #60

Acclaimed primatologist Frans de Waal presents the argument that human morality predates and exists outside of religion and spirituality. He uses years of research on groups of great apes such as bonobos and chimpanzees as evidence that it is evolution, not religion, that gives humanity their moral center.

I’m having a difficult time trying to define how I feel about this book, partially because I’m not sure how the author felt about writing it. I got the sense that Frans de Waal was trying to capitalize on the increasingly popularity of the anti-religion movement, but didn’t really have anything new to say on the subject.

The basis of de Waal’s book relies on two simple questions. First, are animals capable of demonstrating basic morality and altruism? And does our belief in a deity define humanity’s concept of morality, or are humans capable of acting in a moral fashion without the strictures of organized religion? The problem is that both of these questions is that they can easily be answered with a resounding YES. There are thousands of viral videos on YouTube of animals helping one another with no expectation of personal gain, and “unlikely animal friendships” is one of the most popular channels on Instagram. In terms of morality predating religion, toddlers as young as two are capable of demonstrating altruistic and moral behavior. As it is highly unlikely that they have been indoctrinated into believing in a deity at such a young age, it can be determined that morality is trait shared by all of humanity.

Frans de Waal seems to realize that he doesn’t have a lot to say on this issue, and instead bounces wildly from topic to topic, sharing anecdotes and thoughts without really offering any new evidence to back up his statements. The most interesting chapters of this book are the ones that share various observations and studies on animal behavior. No on can look into the eyes of an ape without seeing a bit of ourselves reflected back. Dozens of anecdotes and studies from scientists around the globe have shown that apes are capable of interpreting fairness, social welfare, and empathy. The title The Bonobo and the Atheist is a bit misleading, since the overwhelming bulk of de Waal’s remarks come from the study of chimpanzees. I can only guess than he chose to put bonobos in the title because they are known as the “hippies” of the ape kingdom. They have a matriarchal society that relies heavily on sex as a peace-keeping and bonding tool. But there were very few instances of de Waal ever working directly with bonobos, so I assume that the title choice just felt sexier somehow.

Another distraction was de Waal’s constant need to play art critic. He draws constant references to Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. These references are completely out of place in a book about the morality and social bonds of apes and humans. He uses the painting to draw references to the religion portion of his argument, which is most definitely the thinner side. But these observations fall flat, mainly because I don’t care about art theory in a book about morality. I still can’t figure out exactly what the point was of these numerous interjections, except perhaps that de Waal really enjoys the work of Bosch.

If this review seems a bit all over the place, it’s because that was the overall tone of The Bonobo and the Atheist. Frans de Waal may be a renowned primatologist, but this does not give him any weight to make pronouncements on the need and desire for religion among societies. He spends a fair bit of time disparaging atheists for fighting so furiously against something that they view as imaginary. But de Waal shies away from making any grand declarations on the existence of nonexistence of a higher power. He seems to understand that no one can make that statement, and focuses much more of his time and attention making an argument for the existence of morality in mammalian species.

Overall, this book contained a lot of interesting observations on the animal kingdom. I enjoyed learning more about chimpanzee and bonobo society. But at no time did I ever feel that the author had a strong opinion on the argument he was trying to make. Which made this book feel ultimately like a cynical cash grab. Which if you think about it, is not a terribly moral action.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Bonobo and the Atheist here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

This post is dedicated to Koko the gorilla, who taught us so much about the existence of souls in animals.

Happy reading everyone!



Book Review: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2017)

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Review #32


“We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out—and we have only just begun.”

Most of us have looked up at the night sky at one time or another and asked ourselves about the nature of the universe. What is the relationship between time and space? What fills up the empty spaces of the cosmos? And what is our place in the scheme of it all? Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson boils these burning questions down to their essence, and explains them in a way that the average person is capable of understanding.

“In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy in the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period on the end of this sentence.”

Together with Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson is on a short and esteemed list of scientists that are easily recognized by most adults. Part of this is because when you see him on television, his enthusiasm is purely and utterly infectious. Tyson never lost that wonder that so many children feel when they first learn of the universe spinning and burning outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. He combines this sense of excitement with an staggering intellect in his most recent book. Every line of Astrophysics is teeming with exhilaration. While reading, I sometimes got a mental image of an energetic five-year old, dragging me around by the hand to show me all of his favorite toys. That is, of course, if the five-year old then rattled off complex mathematical formulas to explain how those toys worked.

As a theoretical physicist, Tyson’s mission in life is to poke at the universe with a stick, trying to see what might pop out to say hello. He manages to sound colloquial even when he’s talking about immensely complicated topics such as dark matter and the theory of relativity. One of my favorite chapters was where Tyson lists half the elements in the periodic table and explains which ones have always been around and which one are more recent discoveries. As someone who barely passed high school chemistry, I was surprised how interesting the subject matter can become when you have a teacher who knows how to break a subject down to its core.

I will not lie to you and say that I understood all of what Neil deGrasse Tyson was trying to communicate. I’m an English teacher. I can rattle off big “literary” sounding words all day, but I struggle to comprehend the language of science. At a mere one hundred and ten pages, this should have been a reasonably quick read. However, I felt myself having to read each paragraph two or even three times to puzzle out the meaning. I think the most important thing that I took away from Astrophysics was a greater sense of wonder and curiosity. I still have no real idea what a quasar is. But I have a better understanding and respect for those who do. Some of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s delight in the mysteries of the universe has rubbed off on me. I’m looking forward to the next time I am out in the country, where I can just look up at the night sky and try to puzzle out the magnitude of what I am seeing.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Astrophysics for People in a Hurry here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

P.S. It was while in the midst of this book that I heard about the death of Stephen Hawking. This post, meager and unworthy though it is, is dedicated to his wondrous lifetime of progress and achievement in the world of science.