An Interview with Virginia Morell

Acclaimed science writer Virginia Morell’s latest book Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures is being released this month by Crown Publishing. It’s about the inner worlds of animals, from ants and parrots to elephants and monkeys. Morell takes readers to field sites and labs around the world, introducing us to researchers and animals and exploring the moral and ethical dilemmas that arise when we learn that animals have cognitive abilities usually only attributed to humans.

Virginia Morell’s work always brings nature alive. She’s the author of three previous books. Ancestral Passions, her dramatic biography of the Leakey family was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her Blue Nile, about her journey down the Blue Nile to Sudan, was a San Francisco Chronicle Best Travel Book. Wildlife Wars, which she co-authored with Richard Leakey in 2001, was named by The Washington Post as one of their Best Books of the Year.

She is also a contributing correspondent for Science, and has covered evolutionary and conservation biology since 1990. Morell is also a regular contributor to National Geographic and Conde Nast Traveler. In 2004, her National Geographic article on climate change was a finalist for Best Environmental Article from the Society of Environmental Journalists, and her National Geographic article “Animal Minds“, was selected for the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009.

Morell lives in Ashland, Oregon, with her husband, writer Michael McRae, a Calico cat named Nini and a Farm Collie named Buckaroo.

EB: How did you become a science writer?

VM: As a child, I loved reading and spending time in nature. My parents were great outdoor enthusiasts, and as a family we spent many weekends and every summer vacation camping, hiking and exploring the mountains and deserts of the western states–and I was soon a devoted reader of field guides, learning all I could about wildlife, plants, and geology. I loved reading because I loved imagining myself as the characters in my books and being carried away by the words into their lives. And I loved watching birds and animals for much the same reason. Who were they? How did they live their lives? Did they have romances and adventures? They were elusive, flitting and flying away just as you inched closer. You had to be patient to see them and to learn their ways. I wrote short, imaginary tales about their lives, which everyone seemed to enjoy. And while these were fictional tales, they were my first efforts to explain the things in the world that I thought and cared about. I actually did not set out to become a science writer; as a child I didn’t realize there was such a career. I only discovered it in college. And then there was a sudden illumination: here was a way to combine all that I loved–reading, exploring the wild, meeting unusual, eccentric characters (human and animal), and sharing all of this through my tales.

EB: You’ve written about Africa’s natural treasures, about the Nile, and about the Leakey family. What brought you to the idea of animal minds?

VM: For my biography about the fossil-hunting Leakey family, I traveled to Tanzania to interview Jane Goodall in 1987 at Gombe Stream National Park, where she studies wild chimpanzees. (Louis Leakey had helped Jane launch this project.) While there, I joined Jane and her research assistants on their chimp-watching forays. So many of the chimpanzees’ behaviors, facial expressions, and gestures were similar to ours that I found myself slipping and calling them “people” when describing to other human-people what I’d witnessed. One chimpanzee also involved me in his political schemes; and with Jane’s assistance, a young chimp deceived her elder. (I tell both stories in ANIMAL WISE.) The chimpanzees were clearly thinking, as well as experiencing and expressing emotions—yet Jane could not say this about them. She had to use indirect expressions: “The young chimpanzee behaved ‘as if’ she were deceiving him.” There was a bias at the time against animals having minds, and being capable of thinking or feeling emotions, especially positive ones, such as love. That trip, my discussions with Jane about animal minds, and my own experiences with my dogs and cats led me to investigate the science of animal cognition.

In Ancestral Passions, my book about the Leakey family, I reviewed what was known about the physical evolution of humans. But what about our mental and emotional evolution? There isn’t an equivalent fossil record, but clues to the origins of these abilities can be found by studying other animals. Happily, in the years since my visit with Jane, many animal cognition scientists have adopted a more Darwinian perspective. They no longer ask “do animals think” or “do animals have emotions”. Instead, they’re investigating “how” animals think and feel. For ANIMAL WISE, I joined many of these researchers and the animals they study to find out what scientists know about the minds of our fellow creatures.

EB: I’ve seen videos of Alex the Parrot and his use of speech is really remarkable. Was he special or are other parrots capable of using language that effectively?

VM: Alex had remarkable vocal skills—not because he was special, but because a special human, Irene Pepperberg, spent innumerable hours teaching him how to imitate English words, or “labels” as Irene calls them. Many parrot species have the ability to imitate sounds because they are, like us, vocal-learners. That means they learn calls (or in Alex’s case, words) by listening to others call, and then imitating those sounds. For instance, you can tell me your name: “Ed.” I listen, and I can repeat it back to you, even if I’ve never heard that sound before, because I am a vocal-learner. Most other species, such as chimpanzees, dogs, and cats, are not vocal learners. They make sounds and calls (and these do have meanings), but they cannot imitate the calls of others because they lack the anatomy required for this skill. But parrots and humans aren’t the only vocal learners. Songbirds, hummingbirds, elephants, dolphins, many whales, and harbor seals all have this talent. Although these species are distantly related to each other, they share similar pathways in the brain that make it possible for them to learn and reproduce the sounds they hear.

EB: Is there an ethical component to animal minds? Apology? Regret? Shame?

VM: Many animal species, such as dogs, wolves, dolphins, primates, and rats, have rules that govern how to behave and how to treat others in their social group. They may not have apologies in the same way that we do; but they have ways to ask others for forgiveness if they transgress. Sometimes, this is expressed as submission (think of a dog rolling on his back and exposing his throat to a rival). A chimpanzee seeking forgiveness from another will grimace and extend her hand, palm-up—just as we do when begging.

It might seem difficult to ask if another animal feels regret, but Japanese scientists showed through a clever experiment in 2011 that Rhesus monkeys regret making poor choices. And to confirm their discovery, the researchers also recorded the neuronal activity of the monkeys during the test. Guess what? The regions of the brain that are known to be associated with memory and regret in humans were also activated in the “regretful” monkeys.

Darwin considered “shame” and “embarrassment” to be special emotions, found only in humans, and I don’t know of any studies that have convincingly shown these in other species. Guilt, however, is a different matter. Darwin observed that primates, dogs, and wolves all exhibit the types of behaviors that are associated with guilt: averting one’s gaze, and keeping one’s head down. Guilty behaviors help reinforce social bonds by reducing conflict and encouraging tolerance. Most dog owners think that their dogs feel guilty if they do something wrong. Scientists have devised clever tests for “dog guilt”—but the results so far are mixed. Maybe the best answer comes from one of the great observers of animal behavior, Konrad Lorenz, who wrote that we can “assume with certainty that the [dog’s guilty look] hides a guilty conscience.”

EB: Seems to me that people come to the issue of animal minds with preconceptions? Did you find that? Where do those preconceptions come from?

VM: When I mentioned to others that I was working on a book about how animals think, many responded with raised eyebrows and a smirk: “Oh, animals think?!” At first, I reacted defensively. But I came to realize that their response was simply what they had learned; what our society taught them, and still largely teaches. They were also afraid, I think, of being considered soft or sentimental. The idea that animals are little more than animated objects has been around for centuries, but it became central to western thought through the writings of the 17th century philosopher, Rene Descartes. He argued that the mind and body are two separate entities—the body is material, while the mind or soul is immaterial. Because animals are composed only of material substances, they lack minds or souls, and have no capacity for reason. Biologists, however, have shown that the mind is situated in the material brain—so the old Cartesian dualism is no longer valid. Yet for much of the 20th century, another group of scientists known as “strict animal behaviorists” argued that it’s impossible to know what other animals are thinking. We humans are highly empathetic beings, and so it is easy for us to assume that other animals are thinking or experiencing emotions identical to ours. But proving scientifically—through experiments and/or observations—what is actually going on in another animal’s mind is extremely difficult.

I think that because we use animals cruelly in so many ways many people prefer to regard them as things. It makes us feel less guilty. If humans in Africa were being slaughtered as elephants are these days, no one would stand by idly. But elephants are only animals.

EB: Do animals have humor? How does it work?

Yes, they do. Dogs, dolphins, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, crows, ravens, and parrots have all been observed behaving mischievously, and getting a kick out of it. One of my favorite examples—because it is so human-like—comes from Jane Goodall. On several occasions, she’s watched two young chimp siblings playing together; one chimp is usually a couple years older than the other, and just can’t resist teasing the kid. He’ll trail a vine around a tree—just out of reach of his younger brother. And every time, the little guy almost manages to grab the vine, the older one jerks it forward. After awhile, the little one starts to cry—while the older one erupts in laughter –exactly like human siblings. I’ve also read about a natural historian who had a dog and a parrot. The parrot liked to tease the dog. He would call the dog’s name and then whistle—just like the owner. The dog would run dutifully into the parrot’s room, and the parrot would laugh. Alex the Grey Parrot had a rather sarcastic sense of humor. When Irene Pepperberg didn’t give him a nut right away for a task he’d accomplished, he spelled it out for her: “Want a nut. Nnn, uh, tuh.” You could imagine him thinking, “Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it out for you?,” Irene said. Ravens get a kick out of pulling the tails of wolves; dolphins yank the tail feathers from unsuspecting pelicans; many dogs love to play keep-away. Our Buck gets a kick out of prancing around the house tossing some forbidden object—usually, the kitty litter pooper-scooper. Even rats, an animal you might not think of as having a sense of humor, surely must because they laugh. For ANIMAL WISE, I met Jaak Panksepp, the scientist who discovered laughter in rats by tickling them; they have “tickle skin” just as we humans do. Their laughs are too high-pitched for us to hear (you can hear them if you have a bat call detector), and they laugh when they wrestle and play-fight with each other, and when they’re tickled. Panksepp also discovered that the neural circuits for laughter exist in very ancient parts of the mammalian brain—which means that play and laughter were already present in animals long before we humans came along with our verbal jokes and repartee. As Panksepp said, “Although some still regard laughter as a uniquely human trait, honed in the Pleistocene, the joke’s on them.”

EB: Will your book cause people to reevaluate their relation with their pets?

VM: I can’t say if it will or won’t. But I hope readers will come away understanding that their dog, cat, guinea pig, goldfish, or parakeet has a mind—one that benefits from being challenged just as ours do. The dog cognition researcher, Adam Miklosi, told me, “A dog is not a lamp. It needs something to do; it needs to use its brain.” So, I hope readers will spend more time playing games with their pets, teaching them new tricks, walking and petting them, and just being with them. Engage with them—just as you would a friend you value.

EB: What authors have influenced you both as a reader and a science writer?

I expect that like many science writers, I’ve been deeply influenced by John McPhee. His books are models for explaining a field of science, and drawing readers to arcane subjects via the scientists. Evan Connell’s masterful “Son of the Morning Star” has also affected my writing. I’ve read and re-read his quick, painterly sketches of even minor characters—and would love to think I’m able to give readers somewhat similar vivid descriptions of the scientists I met for ANIMAL WISE. I’m also drawn as a reader and writer to Diane Ackerman, Jonathan Weiner, Annie Dillard, Gretel Ehrlich, Francis Parkman, Ian Frazier, and Charles Darwin (especially his “Voyage of the Beagle”).

EB: I almost hate to ask this, but do you have a next project?

VM: I have several book projects in mind, but haven’t settled on the next one yet.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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