What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns. In one of the early seminal papers on cognitive science, Thomas Nagel famously said that we could never really know what it is like to be a bat. (He actually said, “I want to know what it is like for a bat to be bat.” [As opposed to what it would be like for a human to behave or feel like a bat.]) His point was that objective facts about cognition can not tell us about subjective experiences.
I would love to talk to him about the work being done by Berns using technology like MRI’s to explore the minds of other animals. And explore we can, given the ground-breaking work done by Berns and and others on what’s going on behind the big, beautiful eyes of our dogs (also see Andics et. al., Eotvos University in Hungary). In his first book, How Dogs Love Us, Berns writes about teaching dogs to stay still in an MRI machine and his early research results. In his current book we learn about investigations of more subtle differences between individual dogs, including correlations between frontal lobe function and self control.
I love that the book expands to studies done on the brains other species, from dolphins to sea lions to Tasmanian devils. This is fascinating stuff to neuro-geeks like me. Circling back to Nagel, Berns brings up Nagel’s essay early in the book, and goes on to suggest that he was more wrong than right. I’d argue that they are both right. Berns is correct that, thanks to projects like his, we are learning more than we could have ever imagined about the function of the brain in a variety of species. But Nagel’s cautions are not to be forgotten–just because individuals of two species register brain activity in a similar region doesn’t mean that they are subjectively having the same experience. I’d argue that the cognitive/emotional glass is half full and half empty, and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating both. That said, What It’s Like to Be a Dog is a well-written, accessible and fascinating book: I highly recommend it.
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst: by Robert M. Zapolski. If you really want to dive into behavior, including its neurological basis, this is THE book to get or give this year. The book is primarily about human behavior, but trust me when I say that anyone interested in the behavior of any mammal will profit by reading this book. It is also a book I could never read in one sitting (and haven’t even finished yet), but it’s a veritable banquet of information to anyone who is interested in behavior. I quibble a bit with his early emphasis on aggressive behavior as if it’s the most important kind, and he does fall into the worship of rational thought versus emotional wisdom (he calls the cortex “a crown jewel”) BUT, these are tiny points easily overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of fascinating information found within the book, presented accessibly and compellingly as if what else would we all do but sit around, drink some tea together and talk about mate attraction, dopamine and D4 receptors?
I adore how the book is organized. His explanation of why anyone does anything begins with a chapter on “One Second Before,” then “Seconds to Minutes Before,” then “Day to Months”. We end up with a treatise on “Centuries to Millennia Before” and the evolution of behavior itself. I’ve learned something new and important almost every page. From the neurological basis of racial biases, to whether humans are biologically monogamous or polygamous, (answer: neither) there is something interesting here for everyone. This is a monumental work, and I frankly can’t imagine how he pulled together so much information in so few pages. (Granted the book, without appendices and notes, is 675 pages long.) I am gobsmacked impressed with it, and can’t wait to read more.
The Animals Among Us: How Pets Make Us Human by John Bradshaw. Argh! I bought this book and can’t find it! It’s driving me crazy, because I can’t wait to read it. It sounds fascinating and has received numerous rave reviews, including this one from The Guardian and this one from Hal Herzog. What can I say about a book I haven’t read?
Well, besides saying I can’t wait to read it, I can ask you: Have you read it yet? I’d love to hear what you thought of it!
Scuffing the carpet, I should mention that we have a holiday sale on a gift package of Other End of the Leash, For the Love of a Dog and Education of Will. We’re even throwing in a free copy of Tales of Two Species. Just saying, in case you are looking for a gift for a dog lover in your circle.
Here are some non-dog related books that might be of interest:
Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir by Jill Bialosky. In spite of having a beloved sister who is one of our country’s greatest poets (seriously, Wendy Barker, check her out), I don’t read much poetry. But my new editor for The Education of Will, Peter Borland, sent me a copy of one of “his” newest books published by Atria, written by Jill Bialosky. I read it cover to cover in just a few sittings. It is, first, a physically gorgeous book; I find myself continually picking it up, running my hands over the cover. Inside, the author merges life’s pivotal moments with poems that provided “insight, consolation and connection”.
As reviewer Hope Jahren says “Every passage feels like a private gift.” If you find yourself needing a reminder of the best of our species, or want to celebrate the power and purpose of human language, here it is. (Note: There is a controversy about some of the passages in the book which describe poets with information similar in content and order to passages from outside sources, like Wikipedia. My own opinion is that the author should have worked harder to present some of this information in a newer way, but that the charge of plagarism is over the top. I stand by the book; I think it’s great.)
Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths. As lush, dense, and complex as an Amazon rain forest, this is a book to savor, at least for me, a bit at a time. I almost put it down after the first few pages, because wielding a mental machete while reading at 5 o’clock in the morning felt like too much work. I am not close to done yet (on page 58), but I am persisting, (ahem) because there is so much good here. I found that the verbal foliage lightens up, after page 10 or so, into a compelling narrative about the author’s journeys into hunter-gatherer societies as far away from “civilization” as she can get.
People seem to either love or hate this book (check out the comments on Good Reads) and I can see why. There is lots to like about this book, and lots to learn. For example, I had no idea how ubiquitous it has been to equate civilization with all that is good, and wilderness with all that is bad. That’s one of those facts that I sort of knew, but had no idea how powerful that division has been throughout history. I am soaking up this part of the book up like a sponge.
There is also lots to criticize. I can see already that she writes as though all things “wild” are good, including even profoundly sexist and often violent hunter-gatherer societies, and all things urban or suburban are bad. Her language is blunt and sometimes coarse–one critic complained that she spent an inordinate amount of time talking about her vagina. So be forewarned, this is not a book for everyone, but the writing is so powerful I couldn’t help but mention it.
What about you? What are you reading, what books would you like to give as gifts? Or not? I’m all ears.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: It’s finally acting like winter and I can stop weeding my gardens. Thank heavens. Many of us who live in four-season climates love the onset of winter, in which we shift our focus from out to in, from working outside on late, sunlit evenings to cozy and quiet times in late afternoon twilight. I’m going to be taking a break from work until the end of the year to revitalize and refresh my batteries. There will be lots of cooking, reading, laughing with friends, and playing with dogs. I’ll continue to post every week, but expect nothing but photographs and anything silly that comes my way until next year.
Here’s something silly for you already: Maggie and I were in a small, local sheepdog trial this weekend. It was wonderful fun–great company of other dog lovers, us all bonding over trying to stay warm in the 25 mph wind on Saturday and the temperature in the low twenties. Maggie and I had an okay run on Saturday and a good one on Sunday. She would have won on Sunday I think, except I made a mistake at the pen. Sigh. Handler’s error once again. But Maggie was paw perfect on Sunday, so I must be doing some things right. Thanks so much to John at Big Yellow Boots for putting on a “winter series” of trials. See you in January. Brrr.
After our run on Sunday Maggie and I left the field and walked through a pen with sheep in a corner. She immediately spotted the sheep and gave them the eye so I asked her to lie down while I talked with some friends. Maggie is so responsive that once I noted she was beginning to lie down I turned my head away. A few minutes later I looked back to find Maggie imitating a Sphinx. We all watched her for several minutes, and she maintained that posture for heaven knows how long. When I asked her to lie down from this position, she sank about an inch, if that. (We eventually began laughing so hard that I couldn’t get out another cue.) I’d love to see what an MRI could tell me about her internal state. (“I have followed your instruction to the letter of the law, or close enough. I am not done with working yet, and ….”. Please fill in the blanks.)
On Sunday Willie worked the “set out” pens, which required him to go into a small enclosure and push about 80 sheep toward me so that I can move them into a chute. Willie doesn’t work groups of sheep that large, and he rarely works in such confined quarters. I wish you could have seen his eyes when I asked him to push his way through the packed mob of sheep. “Uh, oh my, there are so many of them and they are all smushed against the fence that you want me to push them off of. Uh, okay, here goes…”. He was clearly a tad nervous about the task, and yet he did it perfectly, over and over. There is truly nothing more fun that doing a real task with your working dog, especially a job that you don’t get an opportunity to do very often. What a great day.