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Beautiful MindsReview - Beautiful Minds
The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins
by Maddalena Bearzi and Craig B.Stanford
Harvard University Press, 2008
Review by Mary Hrovat
Oct 14th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 42)

A cetacean biologist and a primatologist teamed up to write this book, which compares two groups of big-brained animals, great apes and cetaceans. Bearzi studies whales and dolphins in various parts of the world, and Stanford studies chimpanzees in Africa. Each of them seasons the narrative with anecdotes about the animals they've studied, and those glimpses of how other big-brained creatures live and interact are an engaging part of this approachable book. Written for non-experts, it's an enjoyable read. If you're already familiar with what we've learned so far about either chimpanzee or dolphin behavior in the wild, you may not find much that's new, but the book offers a distinctive side-by-side comparison of the two species in the context of human evolution and intelligence, noting parallels and differences in their social behavior and cognitive capabilities.

The story of the animals begins with the story of how each of these researchers came to study his or her chosen species, set within an account of dolphin and great ape lore and research. Most of what we know about both groups has been learned only relatively recently, although some of the legends and mythology involving them go back centuries. The difficulties involved in each type of research are described; these are particularly formidable for dolphins,who live in a medium of which we only skim the surface, and bonobos, who inhabit a relatively small region that is both remote and, in recent years, greatly troubled by warfare.

The heart of the book is the descriptions of how great apes and dolphins live, written in five chapters that explore various aspects of their social organization, tool use, and communication. Intelligence is useful for dealing successfully with various problems that creatures must solve to stay alive, but perhaps it's most useful for dealing with others of your own kind. This idea of the social nature of intelligent behavior underpins the descriptions of how these large-brained animals approach the tasks of hunting, foraging, mating, and caring for their young.

The book looks at communication, imitation, and tool use, and the intersection of these concepts in the emergence of culture, learned behavior that is transmitted from one individual to another. It also addresses the complicated question of whether it's correct to describe other animals as having culture. The other broad theme is the ways that power and status are gained, manipulated, used, and lost in both groups of species. Both chimps and dolphins hunt and eat meat, for example, and the ramifications of this go far beyond the nutritional. Hunting is a social act for both animals, and for chimps meat is not only food but also a marker of power relationships. Plenty of examples illustrate the ways that chimps and dolphins can solve problems, deceive each other or their human companions, communicate with each other, and successfully navigate their complex social worlds. This discussion culminates in a chapter that examines the emergence of human intelligence and considers the areas of convergence in behavior and tactics between the cetaceans and the great apes, and the parallels and differences between those species and ourselves.

The book focuses closely on its chosen topic, with little about other relatively intelligent species. This makes perfect sense, but it might have been instructive to draw wider comparisons with other species, even if these would of necessity have been briefly sketched. In particular, I was disappointed to see that the single reference to avian intelligence had to do with whether parrots truly understand the content of their speech or are just mimicking what they hear without making sense of it. The authors said there was very little evidence for the former, except possibly in the case of Alex, the African Grey parrot that Dr. Irene Pepperberg studied for many years until his death in 2007. I'm not entirely sure I agree with that, and furthermore, other aspects of bird behavior also have a bearing on some of the topics discussed in the book (tool use, theory of mind), and might have been worth at least a brief mention.

But that's a minor quibble. If you're looking for a good overview of the social and behavioral complexities of great ape and cetacean life, combined with fascinating stories of the ways they demonstrate their cognitive abilities, you'll probably find something here to engage your attention. The book raises some big questions in passing and covers them fairly swiftly, but offers suggestions for further reading. There's also a lengthy epilogue on the pressure that human population is putting on the great apes and cetaceans. It's a disheartening story, especially in light of the many similarities between these minds and our own, although the authors do offer some suggestions for how we might protect the future of these animals. It's been said that the saddest story that SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) could tell would be that technological civilizations don't last long enough for there to be any around to talk to us. It might be even sadder to realize that we've shared the planet with other intelligent beings all along, and didn't understand their capacities until they were about to be lost, to the planet and to us.

© 2008 Mary Hrovat

Mary Hrovat is a freelance science writer and editor; she has written about science and information technology for Indiana University's Research & Creative Activity magazine, Indiana Alumni Magazine, and Discovery Online. She also posts news items, book reviews, and articles on the Thinking Meat Project [http://www.thinkingmeat.com/], which deals with brain science, psychology, human evolution, and related topics.


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