How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2020
"In this superbly articulate cri de coeur, Safina gives us a new way of looking at the natural world that is radically different."—The Washington Post
New York Times bestselling author Carl Safina brings readers close to three non-human cultures—what they do, why they do it, and how life is for them.
A New York Times Notable Books of 2020
Some believe that culture is strictly a human phenomenon. But this book reveals cultures of other-than-human beings in some of Earth’s remaining wild places. It shows how if you’re a sperm whale, a scarlet macaw, or a chimpanzee, you too come to understand yourself as an individual within a particular community that does things in specific ways, that has traditions. Alongside genes, culture is a second form of inheritance, passed through generations as pools of learned knowledge. As situations change, social learning—culture—allows behaviors to adjust much faster than genes can adapt.
Becoming Wild brings readers into intimate proximity with various nonhuman individuals in their free-living communities. It presents a revelatory account of how animals function beyond our usual view. Safina shows that for non-humans and humans alike, culture comprises the answers to the question, “How do we live here?” It unites individuals within a group identity. But cultural groups often seek to avoid, or even be hostile toward, other factions. By showing that this is true across species, Safina illuminates why human cultural tensions remain maddeningly intractable despite the arbitrariness of many of our differences. Becoming Wild takes readers behind the curtain of life on Earth, to witness from a new vantage point the most world-saving of perceptions: how we are all connected.
Safina (Beyond Words), a science writer, proposes in his eloquent treatise that numerous species throughout the animal kingdom form complex societies in their interactions with each other. He focuses on three: sperm whales in the Caribbean, scarlet macaws in the Peruvian Amazon, and chimpanzees in Uganda. Having spent weeks in the field with researchers studying each species, he has plenty of examples of how culture, as well as biology, shape behavior. Sperm whales worldwide, for example, are "basically one genetic stock,' " yet individual groups each manifest their own distinctive sonar clicks to communicate. He constantly demonstrates nonhuman animals' capacity for activities often assumed to be solely the domain of Homo sapiens. While it's well-known that many animals learn by observation, Safina points out examples of those that can actually teach complicated tasks for instance, female chimps correcting their offspring's nut-opening technique. The text, written in an accessible style, is rich in similarly fascinating zoological tidbits. This revelatory work sheds as much light on what it means to be human as it does on the nature of other species.