The Inner Life of Animals: Surprising Observations of a Hidden World.
Translated by Jane Billinghurst
A highlight of Christmas 2017 was the video of a crow tobogganing on a snow-covered shed in Russia. Chris Packham , the English naturalist, showed it on his BBC2 programme Winter’s Weirdest Events. Repeatedly the crow dragged a mayonnaise lid to the apex of the roof before stepping onto it and sliding down to the gutter. Having interviewed a corvid specialist Packham explains that the crow was ‘growing its brain by playing’.
In his book The Inner Life of Animals, German writer, Peter Wohlleben aims to explain scientific research on animal behaviour.
To the mix he adds his own observations, made during a career in forestry, and incidents with the family pets. Wohlleben’s earlier book, The Hidden Life of Trees, talks about how trees parent their offspring and communicate with each other.
In a review the Financial Times compared Wohlleben to Paulo Coelho, implying that his approach to ethology (the science of animal behaviour) is similar to Coelho’s brand of cod philosophy. Everyone knows people who seem to love searching for signs that animals are displaying humanlike behaviour. Anthropomorphism is a seductive activity and is popularised by films, TV programmes and You Tube uploads.
Even David Attenborough’s Blue Planet and Planet Earth series foreground family activities which remind viewers of their own home lives. It was strangely moving to see the paterfamilias of a sandgrouse family making daily 120 mile round trips to bring water to his chicks. But these birds have evolved feathers which can soak up and retain water so that the young can drink without endangering themselves at a water hole. It’s called survival of the fittest.
Wohlleben’s examples generally consist of an unscientific sample of one. His interpretations are projected, in most cases, from the mind of the observer, himself. He places the example of the Russian crow in a chapter titled Just for Fun. In Wohlleben’s words the crow ‘clearly’ has ‘mindless fun, and can ‘conjure up happy feelings’ whenever it wants to.
This sort of idea would be fine in Watership Down or Winnie the Pooh but it is utter nonsense in a book that purports to be factual. The words ‘clearly’, ‘mindless fun’,‘conjure’, ‘happy’ and ‘feelings’ are all out of place. It certainly is not clear that the crow is having fun. Even if it were how would anyone know whether the fun was mindless? Crows can no more manipulate their thoughts by conjuring up a memory than they can pull a rabbit out of a hat. Can a crow feel happy? Most scientists do not think that animals can feel emotions.
When Packham talks about play he means the sort of antics that baby stoats undertake when they are fighting in order to practise being an adult. It’s a subtly different definition of the word, play. Words are weaselly things that must be used precisely in texts that hope to translate academic or scientific language into lay terms.
Wohlleben follows up his section on the crow by writing about his dog Maxi. She would ‘play’ tag with her master but often allowed him almost to catch her, before darting away ‘delighted’. He fesses up saying that the game may not be ‘pointless’ as Maxi may have used it to strengthen her relationship with him. If she were to do this, it would be instinctual behaviour rather than a reasoned choice.
The book includes anecdotes which bring a smile of delight to the face of a reader but beyond that the work has no value as ethology.
Wohlleben, P. The Inner Life of Animals. Vintage. 2017. Print.
Wohlleben, P. The Secret Life of Trees. Greystone Books. 2015. Print.
A version of this review was first published on 23rd June 2018 on page 36 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.