Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals

Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals

by Jonathan Balcombe, J. M. Coetzee

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For centuries we believed that humans were the only ones that mattered. The idea that animals had feelings was either dismissed or considered heresy. Today, that's all changing. New scientific studies of animal behavior reveal perceptions, intelligences, awareness and social skills that would have been deemed fantasy a generation ago. The implications make our troubled relationship to animals one of the most pressing moral issues of our time.

Jonathan Balcombe, animal behaviorist and author of the critically acclaimed Pleasurable Kingdom, draws on the latest research, observational studies and personal anecdotes to reveal the full gamut of animal experience—from emotions, to problem solving, to moral judgment. Balcombe challenges the widely held idea that nature is red in tooth and claw, highlighting animal traits we have disregarded until now: their nuanced understanding of social dynamics, their consideration for others, and their strong tendency to avoid violent conflict. Did you know that dogs recognize unfairness and that rats practice random acts of kindness? Did you know that chimpanzees can trounce humans in short-term memory games? Or that fishes distinguish good guys from cheaters, and that birds are susceptible to mood swings such as depression and optimism?

With vivid stories and entertaining anecdotes, Balcombe gives the human pedestal a strong shake while opening the door into the inner lives of the animals themselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230109261
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/16/2010
Series: MacSci
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 937,592
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D., is a former animal behavior research scientist for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and currently a consultant based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Pleasurable Kingdom.

Jonathan Balcombe is the director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy and the author of Second Nature and Pleasurable Kingdom. A popular commentator, he has appeared on The Diane Rehm Show, the BBC, and the National Geographic Channel, and in several documentaries, and is a contributor of features and opinions to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Nature, and other publications. He lives in Maryland.

Read an Excerpt

Second Nature

The Inner Lives of Animals

By Jonathan Balcombe

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Balcombe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-61362-1



I sense that, without sensitivity to physical pain and pleasure, men ... would not have known self-interest; ... and consequently no just or unjust acts; thus physical sensitivity and self-interest were the authors of all justice.

—Claude-Adrien Helvétius, De l'esprit ("On the Mind"), 1758

Becoming a Biologist

I've been fascinated by animals for as long as I remember. According to my mother, trips to London's Whipsnade Zoo were among the highlights of my early childhood. We immigrated to New Zealand when I was three, and I recall petting semi-tame kangaroos at a park in Australia while en route. By the time my family arrived in Toronto, Canada, in 1967, I was a dinosaur-starved boy of eight. Seeing them for the first time at the Royal Ontario Museum thrilled me, as they have delighted countless others.

By the time I finished high school, my affinity for animals had grown, and I enrolled at Toronto's York University to study biology. I learned soon enough that studying animals at this level was often not in the animals' best interests. The introductory biology labs included a parade of formaldehyde-preserved specimens ready for pinning and flaying in rubber-bottomed dissection trays. I remember one midterm exam in which each student was handed a large, freshly killed bullfrog and instructed to dissect and label a set of prescribed body parts. I looked at the limp, shiny form in front of me and was saddened that her life was taken away for such a paltry reason. The abdominal cavity revealed a dense mass of eggs—several hundred nascent tadpoles.

A year later—still stinging from a lab in which our instructor had callously snipped off the legs and wings of a live male locust with a pair of dissecting scissors—I performed a small act of animal liberation. We had crossbred fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) bearing different phenotypes, and it was time to record the distribution of characteristics in the next generation. Flies were kept in small plastic vials with a ball of cotton and a pasty food medium whose odor permeated the classroom. Counting the number of flies with white versus red eyes required exposing them to ether to immobilize them. The flies were then sprinkled onto a piece of white paper to be examined and counted. When the data collection was complete, the flies had no further use to genetics, and our instructions were to tip them into a small glass dish of oil placed at the center of each desk. The "morgue," as it was called, was to be the diminutive Drosophilas' final resting place.

Rocking the boat never came easily to me, but I was having none of this. Once my little pile of dipterans had been counted, I pushed them off the edge of the paper where they were camouflaged against the black desktop. As we recorded our data, I kept one eye on them. The ember of life soon rekindled, and within minutes the pile was twitching and humming as tiny legs and wings beat their way out of the ether fog. They staggered onto their spindly legs before regaining their senses and launching forth. I was thrilled as they took flight.

The flies were my first step in refusing to conduct scientific research that treated nonhuman life as dispensable. They also charted a path for the values I want to bring to the study of animals. As I became more aware of institutionalized abuses of animals, I identified a niche for my future: animal protection.

Bat Years

Bats are fabulously diverse. If you lined up each kind of mammal living on earth today, every fourth one would be a bat. There are more than a thousand species, which ranks them second only to rodents in diversity among the twenty-nine living mammal groups. Bats owe much of their success to the important evolutionary breakthrough of self-powered flight. Combined with the evolution of a hi-fi sonar system for orienting and foraging in the dark, flight allowed bats to muscle in on some prosperous ecological niches, notably a banquet of fruit and nocturnal insects.

One of the rewards of studying bats has been to help dissolve their demonized reputation. Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis mexicana), on which I wrote my PhD dissertation, are renowned for their vast maternity colonies numbering up to twenty million. Pregnant females migrate north each spring from their Mexican wintering range and settle in several limestone caverns scattered mainly across Texas and New Mexico. In early June, each bat gives birth to a single pup. At this time, 90 percent of the species' population of females and young are restricted to perhaps a half dozen caves. My field research in southern Texas was part of years of observations and experiments by a team of biologists aimed at understanding the free-tails' reunion behavior. Mother bats maintain their naked newborn pups in dense crèches of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of other pups on the walls of the pitch-dark caverns. We called the baby bats "pinkies" because of their color, and because each is about the size of your little finger. The newborns are packed so densely on the convoluted cave walls that 150 of them would fit into the space of this page. Mothers leave their pups on the crèche to be able to forage or rest, and they return to nurse them several times a day.

How these reunions take place in these dense, dark, cacophonous caves is a case study in animals' perceptual abilities. Though we have learned to pinpoint exact locations on the globe and transport ourselves there in a matter of hours, we may still admire a tiny bat who achieves a comparable feat unassisted by maps and machines. Bats can find each other across vast distances and dense crowds. Contrary to myth, no bats are blind, but these caves are very dim by day and pitch dark at night. Imagine finding your partner at a cocktail party with a million guests where everyone, including you, is blindfolded.

Earlier studies had shown that Mexican free-tails know their pup's individual scent, and learn the spatial geometry of the cavern where they gave birth. And just as salmon famously do, they also frequently return to their natal cave to have their babies. Observations of mothers and pups tagged with a dab of infrared reflective paint (visible in the dark to a special camera but not to the bats) show that the pair do indeed reunite, and that the mother usually lands within a few feet of her pup. Pinkies don't migrate very far in the daily jostle of tightly packed bats, so the mother narrows her search task to a few thousand bats by landing in the vicinity of where she last left her baby.

My project was to investigate how vocal recognition helps mothers reunite with their pups. For three summers I captured nursing pairs, recorded their calls both inside and outside of the caves, conducted playback experiments, and released the bats where I had found them. I devised a circular arena with an entrance tube leading to the midline demarcating the left and right halves, and a pair of speakers at opposite sides issuing the plaintive (and to human ears mostly inaudible) cries of two bat pups. After trials with thirty different bats, it was clear that a mother spent significantly more time near the speaker broadcasting her own pup's calls than near the other speaker.

I spent many hours analyzing my recordings of their calls. The bats' calls are partially audible to the human ear, but our brains process sounds at much slower speed and lower frequencies. By tape-recording their calls at high speed and playing them back much more slowly, a whisper of faint blips and squeaks resolved into a constellation of unique cries. Perceptually, it was as if my hearing had become the mother bat's, and I could now distinguish the insistent bellows of perhaps a dozen pups who happened to be within range of the directional microphone. Each baby bat's call-signature was markedly distinctive. One's cry might start low and spiral upward, wavering twice before dipping again at the end. Another pup's call might begin with a fairly constant tone, then drop dramatically before rising at the end. The frequency time sonograms in Figure 1 illustrate visually the distinctive character of these pups' calls.

Each call lasts about a tenth of a second. Real calls are tonally richer because they include several harmonics. When the calls are represented on a graph, each bat's calls can be seen to be consistent and as unique as a signature. These are the hallmarks of a finely tuned individual recognition system honed by millions of years of requiring that individuals find each other in dark, crowded conditions.

The reunions between mothers and pups are only one, albeit vital, facet of the lives of Mexican free-tailed bats. They have long, narrow wings built for speed. Many times I stood at the cavern entrance watching them make their evening exodus. It is a spectacular sight. They begin making circuits near the cave mouth a half hour before they emerge. Their numbers swell and just when it seems there's nowhere else to fly but out, the bat cyclone suddenly pours forth, like tea from a spout. It can take two hours for all of them to make their exit.

While watching the multitudes in flight, it is easy to forget that each one is a breathing individual, unique from all the others. I handled about a thousand free-tailed bats, and grew to love their wrinkly, pouting muzzles and alert eyes tucked below large, heavy ears. Their short, fine fur felt as soft as down. Scent glands on their heads give off a pungent perfume, and left an oily residue on my fingers after handling a few dozen.

For the first mile or so they stay tightly bunched and the column snakes away into the sky, undulating like a dragon in a Chinese New Year parade. The bats' cohesiveness is thought to be a defense against predators; one is less likely to be singled out in a crowd, and aggregations are thought to confuse predators. But the strategy is not foolproof. At James River Cave, where I was based in 1989, a red-tailed hawk made regular swoops into the bat column. She was a skilled and experienced bat-snatcher, sometimes nabbing one bat in each foot on a single pass. With each catch, she would make a beeline over the cliff from where she'd appeared. She surely had an active nest there, for a few minutes later she would reappear with empty talons to launch a new ambush. Each individual capture spelled almost certain death for two bats—the mother snatched by the hawk and a little pup somewhere in the cave who had just lost his or her lifeline.

In three years of watching the evening exoduses of the bats, I had never once watched them return. On my final day in the Texas outback, I rose before dawn and trudged out to the cave entrance. It was quiet at first. Then, as the eastern sky began to tint with first light, I heard the first whizzes and buzzes of tiny forms zooming into the cave entrance. A few minutes later I was able to point my binoculars skyward and see them arriving. Bats streamed across the sky from all directions, sparsely at first. They folded their wings and practically fell out of space. As they neared the cavern's mouth, they opened their wings slightly to brake and steer, causing a ripping sound as the air buffeted their wing membranes. These spitfires, weighing just 14 grams, had flown as much as 60 miles away, yet they still found their way back to a pinpoint location in the dark. They perform the same feat over greater distances on their late spring migrations from Mexico, where insect food is more abundant in winter. It isn't known quite how they do this, but I suspect they combine geomagnetic and celestial compassing, recognition of topographical landmarks and, when they approach the destination, their sense of smell.

From Knowledge to Change

The evolution of sentience—the capacity for pain and pleasure—was a crucial turning point in biological history, affecting all animals. Before sentience, living organisms had no moral consequence, for two reasons. First, an organism without feelings cannot suffer. Second, eons had yet to pass before there would be any highly evolved minds to reflect on moral matters such as the rightness or wrongness of an action. But for a sentient creature, things can be perceived to be going well or poorly. My experiences studying and observing animals "up close and personal" reinforced what I had long held to be self-evident: animals experience pain, pleasure, and emotions, and their lives have meaning beyond any utilitarian value that humans may place on them. Morality didn't originate with humans (see Chapter 8), but acute moral awareness is one of humankind's greatest achievements. It is also one of our heaviest burdens.

Getting to know animals has also made me more aware of the immense chasm between the way we ought to treat animals and how we actually do treat them. Our relationship to animals has been based mostly on a "might makes right" ethic. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), over 50 billion land animals worldwide were killed for food in 2005. The number of individual fishes killed by humans may be higher still. Close to 100 million mice, rats, rabbits, monkeys, cats, dogs, and birds are consumed yearly in American laboratories. Between 40 and 70 million mourning doves are shot by American hunters yearly. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that over 50 million animals are killed for their fur each year around the world.

Advances in our knowledge of animal sentience are compelling humans to reconsider our prejudices toward animals. One of humankind's greatest strengths is the speed with which we can undertake profound cultural change. Our species' significant advances over institutionalized racism and sexism represent two of our most admirable social achievements (albeit with work still to be done). That these developments have occurred during the past two centuries—an eye blink in the one- or two-million-year existence of our species—illustrates how quickly profound social change can happen when an injustice is laid open for scrutiny.

Ethical concern for animals as a serious moral issue has roots in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it didn't gain significant momentum until the latter part of the twentieth century. Today, "animal rights" is a fairly universally recognized term in Western cultures. A Google search yields over 66 million results.

The problem in our relationship with animals is that our treatment of them hasn't evolved to keep up with our knowledge. While we have banned bearbaiting and passed some animal welfare laws, animals' position relative to a sphere of moral consequence remains unchanged: they are outside it. As long as we provide a reason that our harming them is "necessary"—for example, to eat them, to make garments from them, to use them in tests for human safety, and so on—then we may do so, even though we do not accept using humans in these ways.

Let me say at the outset that I will not try to convince you that animals are merely other manifestations of humans. Each species is unique, there are marked distinctions across species, and some of the strongest distinctions involve humans. But, as Charles Darwin famously said, these are differences of degree, not kind. And how those differences translate into how humans treat animals is well worth our careful consideration.


tuning in: animal sensitivity

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others

—George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)

The world is a dynamic place. Seasons and weather patterns change; animals, both friend and foe, move about the landscape; plants flower or bear fruit while others are dormant. Animal life is demanding, and their environments require them to be prepared to search for food, avoid becoming food, find mates, seek shelter, migrate, and maintain contact with companions. Given that they have evolved in a diversity of environments—murky, dark, bright, noisy, crowded—they've developed some pretty spectacular ways to orient, survive, and thrive. In the course of a few hundred million years, animals' sensory systems have evolved to function with astonishing efficiency. Humbling as it may be, for all our vaunted brain power, humans emerge as nothing special in the sensory sweepstakes. Our senses of vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch are middling, at best.

Sentience Expanded

How does a human's sentience—our capacity to feel pain and pleasure—stack up against a nonhuman's? An important problem with questions like this is that we cannot know for certain, because another's feelings, whether simple or complex, are private. We can, however, divine a great deal from the anatomy, physiology, and behavior of other animals, and by using our own experiences as a guide. Insofar as we are more intelligent than, say, a sea lion or a bat, we may be capable of richer experiences and feelings in the mental-emotional domain. I can anticipate getting together with friends, journeying to a new country, or delighting in a clever joke, whereas the sea lion, presumably, is not privy to at least some of these sorts of mental pleasures. But to the same degree, the sea lion is perhaps comparatively free from the mental anguish my own rational mind is capable of producing. In his bestselling book The Power of Now, the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle seeks to guide us out of the angst and unhappiness we bring on ourselves by our preoccupations with unalterable past and unpredictable future events. On this reasoning, there is no clear basis for the assumption that a more intelligent life is inherently better (or worse) lived. Quality of life does not align smoothly with intelligence.


Excerpted from Second Nature by Jonathan Balcombe. Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Balcombe. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Tuning In (Animal Sensitivity)
With Feeling (Emotions)
Knowing it (Awareness)
Conveying it (Communication)
Getting Along (Sociability)
Doing Good (Virtue)
Rethinking Wild Existence
Homo Fallible
The New Humanity

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