Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, By Carl Safina

Reviewed by John Miles

Burning questions today are how we should relate to other-than-human denizens of Earth and why we should do so very differently than we have historically. The “arrogance of humanism” as David Ehrenfeld called it years ago, also “human exceptionalism,” has led to what Eileen Crist recently called the worldview of “human supremacy” in Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization (University of Chicago Press, 2019). As I read Carl Safina’s Becoming Wild I kept thinking how millennia of human-centered thinking, as Crist documents, has led to the persistent idea that everything on the planet was made for humans and we could do whatever we wanted to and with it. We think we are the only tool-using, articulate, cultural beings on Earth. We are the chosen.

Carl Safina is an ecologist, a gifted writer, and a conservationist. In Becoming Wild he adds brilliantly to the literature refuting the contention that Homo sapiens is the only species that uses complex culture and social learning to raise families, create beauty, and construct social systems to keep the peace. “This book,” he writes in the Prologue, “is about where culture has led Life (capital L. meaning all of life on Earth, writ large) during its journey through deep time.” He explains and documents how culture is integral to sperm whales raising their families, how perception of beauty played a role in the evolution of the brilliant plumage of scarlet macaws, and how among chimpanzees “social living creates tensions that culture must soothe.”

Safina, as a scientist, knows the literature well, but he does not confine his studies to literature and laboratories – he reports on the work of incredibly dedicated field biologists, joining them in observations of whales, parrots, and chimpanzees. A core conviction that drives his work as scientist and writer is that “To truly comprehend any creature – including people – you must watch them live on their own terms.” He watches, his colleagues of long experience help him understand what he is seeing, and he describes the adventure of observing the “miracles” of Life. He is not presenting scientific research he is doing but, with his extensive scientific expertise and writing skill, he reports from the front lines on work contributing to what should be a revolution in the way we understand, perceive, and treat animals with whom we share Earth.

The sum and substance of Becoming Wild is that other-than-human members of the Earth community live in cultures, long thought to be the exclusive privilege of humans. In the three parts of the book he explains at length how scientists have come to this conclusion.  Sperm whales have “developed the capacity to understand group identities, distinguishing families and groups of families called ‘clans.’” Families communicate with “codas,” which researcher Shane Gero, who has been studying sperm whales off Dominica in the Caribbean for fifteen years, likens to Morse code. These whales have “group identity” and “self-identification with a group,” and family is everything. Safina writes, “For sperm whales, it takes a village to raise a child.”

New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2020.

New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2020.

Sperm whales were nearly wiped out by whaling and they and other whales gained underserved reputations from the writings of Herman Melville and a public view, derived from whaler’s tales, that they were dangerous beasts. Safina writes:

And so here Shane and I are in these waters, seeking a murderous monster of legend who is in reality timid and bonded to family, who treat its children “with the most unceasing care and fondness.” These thoughts – of these beings, with their enormous bodies and minds, keeping their families close as they conduct their lives somewhere in another universe on our troubled planet – are quite enough to disquiet me.

Beneath Safina’s extensive discussion of what might be called the “nature” of whales, macaws, and chimpanzees, is renunciation of human supremacist ideas, one of which is that other beings on Earth are just objects, unworthy of any moral consideration. This profoundly troubles him and the scientists he joins in their fieldwork. He expresses this in many ways throughout the book. He writes of human attitudes toward the whales:

For centuries, whales have represented things. They’ve represented commerce, jobs, Adventure. Money. Danger. Tradition and pride. They’ve represented light and food. They are raw material, like iron ore or petroleum, from which many products can be made. And for all these things, whales have been targets. Men saw in whales everything – except whales themselves. To see things as they are requires honesty.

Safina joined Shane not just to see “Leviathan” and observe them, but “to penetrate past the labels and feel the beings being themselves, living with their families, sharing the air where our two world’s meet.” His forays among the whales, parrots, and chimpanzees described in Becoming Wild are not only journeys seeking scientific understanding but also seeking spiritual and moral insight. In one anecdote Shane Gero hosts eminent marine scientist Sylvia Earle among the whales. Safina describes Earle as a presence “filled with humility and well-controlled righteous rage.” In a quiet moment Earle says to Gero “You feel the burden of trust these whales have placed in you.” As Shane tells Safina of this encounter, tears in his eyes, he explains that in one sentence she had told him why he was there, why he was so dedicated to studying the sperm whales he had come to know so well. He’d always felt this but could never articulate it.

Throughout the book Safina leaves no doubt that he feels the same burden, and that is why he writes books like this. Throughout the book, Safina goes to some length to explain how he defines culture. Writing of the whales he observes that obviously whales don’t have human culture. “Whales have whale culture.” He points out that “culture is information that flows socially and can be learned, retained, and shared.” Research reveals that whales are doing this. A key argument he makes is that evidence clearly indicates that culture affects evolution. One insight is that “Cultural specialization by keeping some together, some apart, builds diversity.” The implications of this have been “almost entirely overlooked by scientists.” Biodiversity is not just a “gene-pool thing” and “skills, traditions, and dialects that animals have innovated and passed along culturally are crucial to helping many populations survive and perpetuate.” Conservationists have been focused on protecting habitat, but now they must consider the cultural diversity of the species they would protect. He hopes that conservationists “can advance the case for conserving wide cultural diversity and ease the public out of a perilous satisfaction with precariously minimal populations.”

Cultural elements erode as habitats shrink but humans are poor at valuing diversity. Species recovery goals are sometimes too small to save a species, not to mention what the species has learned culturally about how to survive.

Conservationists must not only strive to save enough habitat to support ecologically defined minimum viable populations but, he argues, consider what is necessary to assure that learned behaviors, traditions, and skills in animal cultures can be sustained. I think he is arguing that the fact of animal cultures requires a radical rethinking of conservation goals.

Scarlet Macaw, Wikimedia Commons

Scarlet Macaw, Wikimedia Commons

In the “Realm” of the book, as he calls major sections, about scarlet macaws Safina makes a case for “cultural selection” as an evolutionary driver, asking “whether specialization spread by culture could have anything to do with the evolution of new species.” “Turned out,” he writes, “it could,” and he lays out the evidence, much too complex and voluminous to present in this review, but very convincing. He writes, as an explanation of how and why beauty like that of scarlet macaws may have evolved:

Sexual tastes and preferences – many of them cultural, many of them female – have helped drive Life’s diversification. Likely they drive it far enough to repeatedly cause the origin of beautiful new species. Beauty – for the sake of beauty alone – is a powerful, fundamental, evolutionary force. Beauty coupled with behavioral specializations, all reinforced by cultural learning that makes the young prefer the preferences of their elders, drives much of what we seen in the wondrous living world.

The evidence is strong that mating preferences were “observed, learned, and copied” resulting in not geographic separation, but cultural separation, leading to new species. This idea is a revelation that Darwin intuited, he points out, but that only recently is being confirmed.

The third “Realm” of Becoming Wild finds Safina in the Budongo Forest of Uganda, joining Cat Hobaiter, a scientist who has been studying chimpanzees there for years. He learns that chimps have “a preference for peace, within a penchant for war” and that scientific data shows that they live in peace 99% of the time, “despite the internal pressure of intense male ambitions” in chimpanzee social groups. How do they “facilitate a shared group identity” and “hold their communities intact” in the face of such male ambitions? Hobaiter describes, and Safina observes, that “cultural accommodation – a restraint” keeps the peace. Scientists have documented “empathic concern for others and brave altruism” in chimpanzees. Safina describes how he and his colleagues observe conflict and fighting in one instance in which an elder male chimp rushes in, breaks up the fight, and calms the situation.

Order returns. Social difficulties are inevitable; restoring peace takes effort and skill. Male chimps can both disturb and restore the peace, be peace breakers and peace brokers. For that to work, a chimp like Ursus has to understand this, want this, and know how to make it happen.

Chimpanzees, Wikimedia Commons

Chimpanzees, Wikimedia Commons

Safina explains that scientific observation has explained how this peace brokering behavior has evolved and how it is learned and passed through chimp communities. He reflects that “Such impartial intervention by bystanders reflects a sense of community concern that is rare among non-humans (and not universal in humans). Acting as if fights are considered ‘bad’ suggests a moral nature, a sense of good and bad.”

Safina starts out in Becoming Wild powerfully arguing that we should grant more respect to our fellow travelers on Earth because they are beings just as we are and therefore worthy of respect. He explains throughout the book how they are beings caring for families communicating in complex ways, admiring beauty, and working to sustain their communities. When I got to the third Realm in the book I kept thinking of Aldo Leopold, an ecologist who explored the moral implications of what he observed in nature and human society regarding our responsibilities. The scientists Safina joins in the field share Shane Gero’s deep feeling of responsibility for the beings they are studying and for nature writ large, as does Safina. Ecologist Leopold wrote of enlarging the human concept of community to include all fellow beings and to become “plain member and citizen” of that community. Ecologist Safina builds on Leopold, describing how science is revealing that many of our fellow other-than-human beings are deserving of moral consideration and indeed, that at least some of them are shown to be, along with us, moral beings.

In Safina’s treatment of chimpanzees he expresses more about what humans can learn from their animal relatives than in the two other Realms, perhaps because chimpanzees are considered by many to be our “closest living relative” in the animal world. He doesn’t see them this way but rather as “our contemporaries” and “complete chimpanzees, not half-baked humans.” But they are very similar to us not only genetically but behaviorally and culturally. In his epilogue Safina writes:

Beings who’ve succeeded on Earth for millions of years don’t seek, and should not require, our approval. They belong as well as we do. We do ourselves no favors by asking whether their existence is worth our while. We are hardly in a position to judge, hurtling and lurching along as we are with no goal, no plan except: bigger, faster, more.

Caring for sperm whales, scarlet macaws, chimpanzees, and the rest of Life is, for Safina, as it was for Leopold, a moral matter.

Occasionally a scientist appears who writes in a style accessible and appealing to general readers, who can blend storytelling with science and combine detailed description and explanation. Safina is such a science writer, and beyond that he expresses deep feeling for his subjects, the scientists doing the work and subjects of their work. He is not a dispassionate inquirer into nature but an advocate for getting beyond destructive ideas that threaten not only the natural world but the human world as well because humans, despite what they would like to believe, are not exceptions to nature. This message comes through time after time in Becoming Wild, strengthens the rationales for conservation and should strengthen the resolve of conservationists, particularly of rewilders.

Finally, as Safina reminds me of Aldo Leopold, I think too in reading this marvelous book of Rachel Carson. He is, in my opinion, in their class as a writer. Like them he applies his scientific knowledge to major challenges we face in understanding nature and casting our responsibilities in relation to it. Also like them he writes in a style accessible to all, scientists and scientifically curious and literate non-scientists alike. He takes on big questions and reveals how science is gaining insight into those questions. This and other of Safina’s books are must-reads as conservationists seek to move the minds and hearts of people in the 21st century toward a respect for all Life and a changed relationship with our fellow beings on Earth.


Listen to Carl on the Rewilding Earth Podcast!

Episode 46: Carl Safina on Animal Cultures, Pandemics, and Humanity’s Rocky Relationship With The Wild World

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