The Inner Life of Animals

“The idea that there was an abrupt break in the course of evolution, and that at some point everything was reinvented, is an idea whose time is past. The only major point of contention today is whether animals can think; that’s what we do best, after all.”

inner life animalsIn a way this quote summarises the essence of Peter Wohlleben’s important book The Inner Life of Animals: Surprising Observations of a Hidden World. He presents much evidence that the inner life of animals is very much like our own, perhaps except for the thinking faculty.

The evidence is extensive and overwhelming, a combination of scientific research and the personal observations of one who works on the land. For example:

  • ravens have a strong sense of right and wrong, and are very intelligent, using their beaks much as we do our hands.They and other species that live in social groups can match, and in some cases even exceed, the mental prowess of primates.
  • wild boar know exactly which other boar they are related to, even if the connection is a distant one. Indeed, pigs are extremely intelligent animals. They teach their young and help them deliver their own children later in life. They and other animals understand their own names, and thus have some degree of self-consciousness.
  • crows are known for recognising people and for having strong emotional reactions to those they don’t like.
  • horses know just by how tense their rider’s body is and enjoy being directed and exercised.
  • doe’s grieve for their dead offspring.
  • shame and embarrassment are evident in dogs, and function as a kind of act of contrition – they are mechanisms for asking for forgiveness.
  • animals are capable of empathy, and experience fear and pain.
  • it’s quite clear to foresters and hunters alike that wild animals learn from experience. Wild boar hunt at night when they themselves are hunted, but not otherwise.

As well as all this evidence, there is also the suggestion that humans have actually largely lost touch with a capability that animals still have – the sixth sense, which is a necessary tool for survival in the wild. Why is it that, in comparison with animals, we are so unaware of changes in our environment? The answer lies in the way our modern home and work environments overwhelm our senses. How much more accurately must early peoples have been able to read the woods and the meadows, exposed, as they were, to all those stimuli day in and day out?

For us, the wild largely no longer exists. We have already cleared, built on or dug up 80 per cent of the Earth’s land mass. Our disconnection with nature has major impacts, including hundreds of thousands of wild boar and pigs killed every year in EU alone.

In Europe at least half the night sky is affected by light pollution, disorienting many species of animals that depend on stars to orient themselves at night. Moths, for instance, rely on the moon when they want to fly in a straight line.

Instead of the sixth sense we have this highly developed abstract thinking capability. We act automatically and subconsciously, but the conscious part of the brain then comes up with an explanation for the action a few seconds later – a face-saving explanation for our fragile ego, which likes to feels it’s completely in control at all times. In many cases, however, the other side – our unconscious – is in charge of operations. Emotions are the language of the unconscious and as we have seen the evidence is that animals also experience them.

Our scientific society  denies these emotions in animals, so that we can continue to exploit them without troubling our conscience too much. We are living a lie.

Wohlleben actually identifies a root cause in humans: the capacity to feel empathy wastes away in people who are denied early exposure to this skill. So upbringing of children outside of an empathic environment is probably a root cause of our denial of the suffering of animals, as well as that of our fellow humans. One can only reflect on the typical English upper class childhood, sent away to impersonal boarding school at an early age.

We have so much in common with animals and they have so much to teach us, if only we will listen before we’ve exterminated every last one of them. Wohlleben leaves us with this wonderful thought:

“Squirrels, deer and wild boar with souls: that’s the thought that makes life special and warms my heart when I have the opportunity to watch animals.”

See also Wohlleben’s superb and even more gripping book The Hidden Life of Trees.

The Hidden Life of Trees

hidden life of treesPeter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees is one of those books that change the way you look at things – the world of trees and forests in particular.

Starting off as a conventional forester, he gradually became aware of the real life that was going on around him, rather than just seeing the trees as objects to be managed.

Trees are complex organisms that live in families, nurture each other, respond to their environment, live in symbiosis with other beings, have a circulation and a food system, move in response to environmental change – indeed they are complex social organisms just as we are. It’s just that their timescales are different – much more extended than ours, just as our timescales are much more extended than those of the mayfly.

The timescale for forests and their tree families measures in the hundreds and thousands of years. When we destroy an ancient forest, we are destroying an ecosystem that has taken many hundreds of years to establish. Most ancient forest in Europe is already destroyed through man’s ignorance, so it is imperative to retain those that remain – they are literally irreplaceable. New planting starts a new process of building up an ecosystem, but who knows if the insects, microorganisms and fungi (let alone the fauna) will ever re-establish themselves.

Wohlleben explains how forests act as a water pump, creating the clouds that give rain to landlocked interiors of continents. Without trees there would be far more desert.

Forests have a calming effect on weather, soak up heavy rains avoiding flooding, absorb masses of carbon dioxide (particularly the older trees), provide the environment for massive biodiversity… There are so many benefits.

And then there are the benefits of simply walking in the forest. Most of us have experienced its wonderful calming effect at some point. I guess that’s because at some level we can sense the majestic life in these great beings.

As more and more virgin forests across the world are destroyed by commercial interests, such as for growing palm oil or animal food, the loss and potential dangers are surely clear. Climate change demands that we need more forest cover, not less, to help alleviate the increase in CO2 and its effects.

The book contains a lot more insights than my brief comments suggest. Do read it. Superb!