(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

After reading this book—or after watching the television series for which it serves as a companion—one begins to question seriously where to draw the line between humans and the rest of the animal world. At one time it was thought that tool use distinguished humans from the animals, and the eminent primatologist Jane Goodall’s observations about chimpanzees’ use of grasses to dislodge termites from logs were greeted with incredulity. She was in good company, for roughly a century earlier Charles Darwin was given the cold shoulder for reporting in The Descent of Man(1871) that he had viewed an orangutan using a stick as a lever. Such assertions were thought of as embarrassing anthropomorphisms, unobjective, unscientific attributions of human characteristics to baser creatures. Now, however, it is commonly accepted that not only the great apes, but animals far lower down the evolutionary scale—indeed, even ants—occasionally make use of tools, sometimes even manufacturing them.

Then there is the old canard about elephants never forgetting: George Page explains that elephants do in fact have long memories, an attribute that permits the largest of their species to exist, incongruously enough, in the Namibian desert in southwest Africa. They do so by virtue of what is called “mental mapping,” the ability to learn the relative locations of permanent objects—in the Namibian elephants’ case, water sources—and to remember them. It is an ability shared by the typical London cabbie, the rufous hummingbird, and even the lowly bumblebee.

As Jeffrey M. Masson and Susan McCarthy demonstrated with their book, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals (1995), elephants also offer one of the most compelling arguments for the attribution of emotion to animals. For his part, Page cites the example of film footage taken by a Denver television station at the scene of a downed African bull elephant. Elephants will inevitably die if they cannot stand, and when human intervention failed to right this bull, a group of smaller Asian elephants came to the rescue, prodding the bull until he stood, propping him up until he could support himself. Page evenhandedly states the argument of the behaviorist camp that such situations are less than meets the eye, that in any event all altruism is selfish. However, he is quick to counter that although such an argument is impossible to refute, “whatever compassion and empathy are with humans, so they are with chimps and bonobos and dolphins and dogs—and a host of other animals that humans have loved.”

Page relates numerous examples of compassion across species lines, including the love of the famous signing gorilla, Koko, for her pet kitten. Human beings know the feeling and derive great pleasure from interactions with their pets. Few people, however, have had an experience anything like that recounted by writer Fran Peavey in Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals (1998) and repeated in Inside the Animal Mind. One day when Peavey was on the Stanford University campus, she witnessed a large crowd of people surrounding a chained female chimpanzee. Apparently the crowd consisted of scientists attempting to mate the female with a male chimp that was loose. The male was eager to mate, but the female was unwilling to do so. Grabbing its chain away from the male, the female walked over to Peavey and took her hand, then led Peavey across to the only other two women in the crowd and held one of their hands, too.

Such anecdotes are extraordinary and help to make Inside the Animal Mind and the accompanying Nature programs both entertaining and readily accessible to the layperson. They are also just the sort of anthropomorphic “evidence” that behaviorists abhor. In addition to anecdotes, however, Page’s book contains a good deal of discussion concerning objective testing of and scientific theorizing about animal intelligence. Koko, a gorilla that has been taught sign language, has already been mentioned. Despite her fame, however, Koko is not exhibit one in Page’s discussion. Raised in a parent-child relationship with her trainer, Penny Patterson, Koko and her many communication successes are too much like the infamous Clever Hans episode.

Clever Hans, an early twentieth century equine celebrity who supposedly could solve simple arithmetical problems, was discovered instead to be responding to subtle, probably unintentional visual cues given by his handlers. This embarrassing...

(The entire section is 1852 words.)