Intriguing but not entirely convincing.

CHASING DOCTOR DOLITTLE

LEARNING THE LANGUAGE OF ANIMALS

The director of the Animal Language Institute gives an affirmative answer to the question: “Do animals have language?”

Slobodchikoff (Biology/North Arizona Univ.; Autobiography of a Poodle, 2012, etc.) has closely studied the behavior of rodentlike prairie dogs for years and is convinced that the chirps they emit when they perceive a dangerous situation deliberately communicate information that is ordinarily inaudible to human listeners. He and his students have digitally analyzed the prairie dogs’ 10-second alarm calls (which to us sound like cheeps) and correlated these to specific environmental stimuli. Slobodchikoff argues that the sounds contain “as much information to prairie dogs as a long, drawn-out sentence would for us.” Along with several other experiments showing that chickens, monkeys and other animals routinely identify predators by different calls, this provides the basis for the author’s contention that animal signaling is in fact a language. Slobodchikoff presents his view in opposition to behaviorists, whom he characterizes as believing that “animals aren't even conscious of their own existence, much less anyone else's.” He does not claim that animal communications are comparable to human discourse, but suggests that recognizing they, too, have a primitive kind of language constitutes an important step toward the recognition of our fundamental kinship. Slobodchikoff believes that animals communicate information intentionally, and this shapes their mental representation of the environment in which they live. Nor is their use of language restricted to the realm of sound, he writes. Dogs signal the boundaries of their territory by leaving odors, squid change color, etc. The author concludes that we need to extend our study of language in other species to the entire “Discourse System” necessary to produce it, including specialized areas of the brain devoted to understanding and producing language.

Intriguing but not entirely convincing.

Pub Date: Nov. 27, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-312-61179-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Aug. 30, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

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The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!

SILENT SPRING

It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Usand its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorkerare being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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