Ecologist Carl Safina’s latest book focuses on the scarlet macaw, the sperm whale, and the chimpanzee, but his concerns range far more widely than a trio of animals. In “Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace,” he writes about culture, the structures of societies, and what makes us who and what we are.
Safina’s three animals are cannily chosen for their variety: an enormous seagoing mammal, an exotic bird, and one of humanity’s closest genetic relatives. Safina has observed these animals in their natural settings; in addition to fascinating dispatches from the ethological front lines, large chunks of “Becoming Wild” also double as first-rate nature writing.
We meet chimpanzees, about which Safina warns against thinking about in purely human terms. “We see in them partially formed prehumans caught between being and becoming, a harbinger of humankind,” Safina writes, noting, “Chimpanzees are not our ancestors; the last species ancestral to chimpanzees and humans is extinct. Chimps are our contemporaries. They are complete chimpanzees, not half-baked humans.” It’s a theme sounded throughout the book.
The main reason for this caution is also one of the central endeavors of “Becoming Wild”: deconstructing the idea of human exceptionalism. For centuries, scientists and philosophers have pinned that exceptionalism on one thing after another: Humans are the only animals that have language, humans are the only animals that make tools, etc. These have all boiled down to the same notion, that only humans have culture.
Safina’s book shows what naturalists have known for centuries: Nothing could be further from the truth. Human beings have only recently begun to recognize the animal cultures around them. “Humans use language so much that it swamps our own ability to recognize subtle and not-subtle nonverbal signals that we ourselves continually display and respond to,” Safina writes. “The world is awash in layers and waves of communication.”
“Becoming Wild” teems with communication of all kinds, with complex, empathetic creatures solving the problems of their worlds. Some birds, Safina reminds his readers, have toolmaking skills equal to anything possessed by apes. “New Caledonia crows make hooked tools, something even chimpanzees don’t do,” he writes. “Apes don’t have much, if anything, over macaws and ravens.” Juvenile macaws spend years learning tool-fashioning from their parents. Sperm whale clans include each other in sonic webs extending over half the planet, webs full of syntax and vocabulary and even regional dialects. Chimpanzees mirror all the interpersonal complexity of humans.
Safina imparts a naturalist’s sense of unending wonder. “Over the towering kapok tree shines one bright planet, the indelible sight of Venus above the Amazon,” he writes at one point. Marveling at the sheer beauty of macaws, he asks, “How could such profligate colors exist? Why would birds evolve such beauty?”
He also returns to the idea that humans are not the center of the universe. He recognizes that this makes some people uncomfortable. Among its many virtues, “Becoming Wild” eases such discomfort. It takes the concerns of Safina’s incredibly moving 2015 book, “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,” and puts more faces on its common-sense revelations. One of those faces has a bright red cap of feathers; another is as long as your living room; and the third has expressions very like your own. All have cultures. All have societies. All are kin.