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A Groundbreaking Exploration of Animal Intelligence

by George Page

Pub Date: Nov. 9th, 1999
ISBN: 0-385-49291-X
Publisher: Doubleday

The creator and host of PBS’s Nature series provides an informative, sweeping, but often unconvincing survey of animal behavior in this companion to a forthcoming television series. Page’s is predominantly a work of advocacy on behalf of the proposition that animals think, feel, and are substantially sentient—are conscious, in other words. He is more specific about our reactions to this claim—he predicts that most readers will find it astonishing—than about how far the claim is meant to go. To what extent are animals emotional or rational? It is no small matter to clear up common, behaviorist mistakes about animals’some do use tools, do plan ahead for future events, and do feel emotions—and to assess the pitfalls of anthropomorphism and what Page calls —anecdotalism,— the habit of finding vast meaning in trivial events. Unfortunately, this anecdotalism bedevils his own work. His comparison of a hummingbird’s exemplary memory to his own inability to find his car keys is more entertaining than scientifically enlightening. The enigma of animal cognition is exclusively a matter of interpreting, from their exterior residue in actions, the presence of inner states. Though Page’s interpretations are pleasant to read, some seem baldly overripe: After a lion and a dog are raised together, the lion suddenly snaps at the dog, and —that was the end of a beautiful relationship. . . . Does the dog ever think back with longing for the day when her closest friend was a lion? It’s great to think so, I believe.— Such is the quality of reasoning and inference available here. Nonetheless, as an informed introductory guide, Page’s volume is more solid and less sensational than most. Is its presentation of the knotty problem of animal cognition sophisticated enough? It’s great to think so, isn—t it? (24 b&w photos)