Enthralling accounts of three animals that lead complex social lives and deserve to continue living.




Humans possess culture, but so do animals according to this compelling account of three nonhuman societies: sperm whales, scarlet macaws, and chimpanzees.

Nature writer, activist, TV host, and founder of the Safina Center, the author notes that animals learn from their elders how to fit in, communicate, search for food, and identify friends and strangers. This is culture, and it’s not inherited. “An individual receives genes only from its parents,” writes the author, “but can receive culture from anyone and everyone in the social group…and because culture improves survival, culture can lead where genes must follow and adapt.” During the 1950s, Navy personnel listening for Russian submarines were astonished to hear elaborate, beautiful songs that turned out to come from whales. As a result of the bestselling recording, “whales went from being ingredients of margarine in the 1960s to spiritual icons of the 1970s emerging environmental movement.” Safina’s lovely account of his travels with researchers studying sperm whales reveals a majestic, closely knit community. Turning to scarlet macaws, every one of which knows its friends and avoids macaws that don’t belong, the author wonders what happens to a social organism after a few thousand generations. In traditional evolution, new species appear when isolation (due to a river, mountain range, etc.) allows the changes of Darwinian natural selection to spread throughout one group but not others. Don’t animal cultures produce a similar reproductive isolation? In fact, cultural selection, although controversial, may act as another engine of evolution. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees, share 98% of our genes as well as many cultural traits, especially a fractious social system in which macho males compete for leadership with more violence than seems reasonable. Most books on natural history include pleas for preservation of the wild, and Safina’s is no exception. Sadly, none of his subjects are thriving, and few readers will doubt that these magnificent creatures need urgent attention.

Enthralling accounts of three animals that lead complex social lives and deserve to continue living.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-17333-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.


Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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