Signs of Intelligent Life

Ecologist Carl Safina’s evidence that other animals think and feel.


| Spring 2017



Signs-media

Elephants are widely recognized as having human-like intelligence.

Photo by Flickr/Megan Coughlin

Anyone who’s ever had a pet has probably sensed a conscious presence behind the animal’s gaze, but the idea persists that other living creatures are motivated solely by instinct, not thoughts and feelings. It’s a concept that ecologist and author Carl Safina roundly rejects in his latest book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. “You have to deeply deny the evidence,” he writes, “to conclude that humans alone are conscious, feeling beings.”

Safina argues that the complex behaviors of wolves, elephants, killer whales, and other nonhuman creatures are far from mindless. Over and over he pokes holes in the idea of human exceptionalism, offering examples of animals who use tools, cooperate, solve problems, and teach each other. The subject is somewhat of a departure for Safina, who writes mostly about conservation issues. Through his discussion of animal cognition he also makes an indirect pitch for saving other species by telling readers “not just what’s at stake, but who is at stake.” In The New York Review of Books Tim Flannery writes that Safina’s book “has the potential to change our relationship with the natural world.”

Born in 1955, Safina grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where he saw relatively few wild animals. His father raised canaries, however, and their tenement flat was always full of birds and song. When Safina earned a PhD in ecology from Rutgers University, his field research focused on seabirds. In the 1990s he worked to end overfishing, helping to pass new fishing regulations through Congress and leading a successful campaign to ban high-seas drift nets, which caught dolphins, whales, and turtles, as well as fish.

At the tail end of that decade, Safina’s first book, Song for the Blue Ocean, was published. It was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and the enthusiastic reception led Safina to begin writing full time. Since then he has written Eye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, The View from Lazy Point, and others. He also writes for The New York Times, Audubon, Orion, and Time. In 2011 he hosted the ten-part PBS television series Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina, and last year he gave a ted talk on animal consciousness. He is currently the chair for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University in New York and the founding president of the nonprofit Safina Center.

Safina spoke to me by phone from his home in Long Island, New York. His tone was playful when he told me anecdotes about the animals he has studied and known, but it turned serious as the conversation moved to the topic of preserving wild animal populations and sharing the planet peacefully with them. He hopes that the stories of animal communication in Beyond Words will convince readers of the necessity of both. “I wanted the animals to make their own case for the validity of their existence,” he says.