Although human cognition remains uniquely profound, evolution guarantees that it has a long history, and Morell makes a...

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ANIMAL WISE

THE THOUGHTS AND EMOTIONS OF OUR FELLOW CREATURES

Animals not only have minds, but personalities and emotions. They make plans, calculate, cheat and even teach, writes veteran science writer Morell (Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, 1997) in this delightful exploration of how animals think.

Until 50 years ago, most scientists—but not Darwin—believed that blind instinct governed animal behavior; thinking was unnecessary and therefore absent. Morell documents her interviews with scientists across the world whose studies have reduced this to a minority opinion. Readers anticipating the traditional high-IQ dog/monkey/elephant examples will receive a jolt in the first chapter, which reveals that ants are no slouches in the brain department. Members of a complex society, they solve problems with a flexibility that would be impossible if ant neurons were simple and hard-wired. No less impressive are fish, birds and rats, which the author examines in subsequent chapters. Fish feel pain. Birds sing because their parents teach them. Parrots not only imitate human sounds, they know what they are saying and can identify numbers, shapes, colors and even differences between them. Rats engaged in play make sounds that reveal that they are enjoying themselves. Entering familiar territory, Morell also looks at elephants and dolphins, which have long memories and sophisticated personal relationships that include genuine affection. While chimps perform their impressive feats, dogs occupy the final chapter since many experts believe that a dog’s obsession with reading and responding to our cues make it the best model for understanding the human mind.

Although human cognition remains uniquely profound, evolution guarantees that it has a long history, and Morell makes a fascinating, convincing case that even primitive animals give some thought to their actions.

Pub Date: Feb. 26, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-46144-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2013

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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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Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a...

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H IS FOR HAWK

An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk.

Following the sudden death of her father, Macdonald (History and Philosophy/Cambridge Univ.; Falcon, 2006, etc.) tried staving off deep depression with a unique form of personal therapy: the purchase and training of an English goshawk, which she named Mabel. Although a trained falconer, the author chose a raptor both unfamiliar and unpredictable, a creature of mad confidence that became a means of working against madness. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes. As a devotee of birds of prey since girlhood, Macdonald knew the legends and the literature, particularly the cautionary example of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his own painful battle to master his title subject. Macdonald dramatically parallels her own story with White’s, achieving a remarkable imaginative sympathy with the writer, a lonely, tormented homosexual fighting his own sadomasochistic demons. Even as she was learning from White’s mistakes, she found herself very much in his shoes, watching her life fall apart as the painfully slow bonding process with Mabel took over. Just how much do animals and humans have in common? The more Macdonald got to know her, the more Mabel confounded her notions about what the species was supposed to represent. Is a hawk a symbol of might or independence, or is that just our attempt to remake the animal world in our own image? Writing with breathless urgency that only rarely skirts the melodramatic, Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment.

Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0802123411

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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