Beyond Words, Hardback Book
4.5 out of 5 (5 ratings)


Long before his work as an ocean conservationist, Carl Safina's childhood by the long island shore launched a life-long passion for animals.

Since then, his collected work has sought to inspire respect and improved understanding for wildlife.

In his wise and passionate new book, Safina delves deeply into the lives of animals, witnessing their profound capacity for perception, thought, and emotion.

Weaving observation with new understanding of brain functioning, his narrative erases many previously held distinctions between humans and other animals.

Who we are as individuals depends on who we are to others, and on who others are to us.

Relationships define us. Certain non-humans, too, live lives focused around rich social relationships.

If tragedy befalls key individuals, survivors confront lasting repercussions.

Like us, these animals know who they are. In Beyond Words, readers travel from Kenya to visit the Sheldrake elephant orphanage, to Yellowstone National Park to observe free-living wolves sorting out the aftermath of their personal tragedy, to the whales of Hero Strait off of Vancouver. Safina delivers a graceful examination of how animals truly think and feel, which calls to question what really does -and should- make us human.


  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 496 pages, 8 page colour insert
  • Publisher: Henry Holt & Company Inc
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Wildlife: general interest
  • ISBN: 9780805098884

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Showing 1 - 5 of 5 reviews.

Review by

If you were not sure before reading this book that animals think and feel (I already knew that from living with pets—well, of course!), you will surely be won over to that opinion after doing so. Not only that; you will be awed by what you learn from the research presented about animals’ analytical, memory, emotional, and sensory capabilities that you may not have previously been aware of.Your human species ego will also be jolted in regard to our insecurities, as we’ve strived over the centuries to make sure we can prove that we are special, unique, and set apart from all other living things, when in fact, we share so many qualities and capabilities presently as well as in our evolutionary past with other creatures. Close to the conclusion, in the section on whales, the author says, “I don’t see evidence that whales—even if they are more intelligent than us…would be ‘sending us a message,’ as one friend of mine believes…Who wouldn’t like to believe [that]? That would make them special. But most important, it would make us very special. And how very special we are is our favorite story. If humans have one overriding conceit and one universally shared delusion, it is that the world owes us for being so special.”The book is very well written in an appealing and somewhat familiar style—not at all in stiff “scientist-ese,” although it contains loads of data from scientific studies and long-term field observations. Readers will easily be able to follow the author’s line of thinking and be able to mentally visualize the animal societies described (partly because they ring such a bell with our own societies).The in-depth description of a particular handful of animals deeply moved me, and brought me to tears, as usually happens when I watch PBS “Nature” episodes or other animal documentaries on TV. That brings me to one of my only qualms with the book, which isn’t really with the book so much as its title. The subtitle suggested (in my head, before reading it) that it is about all animals, so I expected great breadth, that is, examples from dozens or hundreds of different species. It turned out to be very detailed and deep depictions of the life and times of Kenyan elephants, Yellowstone wolves, and Vancouver coastline killer whales, with other species given cameo appearances as well. The book doesn’t need to be my preconceived notion to achieve its goal, however.Also based on the title, as someone with a graduate degree in linguistics, I was perhaps expecting that many more pages proportionately would directly relate to the methods animals use to communicate other than using human-style words and syntax (as Steven Pinker put it in the title of one of his books, “Words and Rules”). Near the beginning of the book, I recall feeling my entire field that I spent years working to absorb, was dismissed—that is, that the term “language” as defined by human linguists to describe human language had no merit and other animals could be said to have language. So initially, I had my “hackles” up on that count; later, the author did make more of an effort to define the difference between human syntax and animals language, and I relaxed on that point. I do hope that he is aware that--at least when I was in school--linguists not only recognize that non-human species have communication systems (e.g., honeybee dance, vervet monkey words for bird or snake, great apes learning sign language and abstract word symbols, etc.), but in graduate programs, these systems are discussed quite seriously in courses.I could go on and on, as this book affected me so very deeply in how *I* think and feel. Especially in our age of the world, descriptions of the life and times of a species always have a deeply sad component, because so much is broken in the environment, so much of it due to our hubris that we are so very special and more important than all the rest of the species on Earth. Upon reading it, I immediately had to look up how I might support conservation organizations. The last section is about Pacific Ocean whales and includes a description of their precarious existence and numbers. I finished the book two days before I learned in the news about the Santa Barbara County, California oil pipeline spill, and have been in a state of devastation since.

Review by

Beyond Words What Animals Think And Feel by Carl Safina was an incredibly insightful study of animals and the way they think and the emotions they go through. It started out with elephants which I have a huge affinity for. I learned so much about them but it was hard to read about the hardships they are going through. There was a chapter on wolves that told of the hardships they face and how the pack works. There were several examples of different animals and examples of their sense of fairness, empathy for others, their ability to use tools and figure out problems. Very interesting read.

Review by

Carl Safina prompts readers to consider animal behavior and thought, not by comparing it with human behavior, but by viewing it as unique. He encourages marrying science and logic to draw conclusions about animal thoughts and feelings. For example, we may think it good science to very detachedly document the way a dog bounds and jumps up to greet us when we return home. We can also use logic and apply what we know about this dog and our experiences with feeling to say the dog is happy. Major sections include visits with scientists observing elephants, wolves, and killer whales roaming freely in the wild. Dogs, parrots, ravens, tigers, humans, monkeys, and many other species get brief mentions. Content is mostly anecdotal, relaying Safina's own adventures or those of the long-time observers he visits in the field. Reading this book is like sitting down with a friend or relative (albeit a smart and well-traveled one!) and listening to him philosophize as he recounts experiences in the field with some of the world's leading researchers on the behavior of free roaming animals. Safina is entertaining and is not above using some punny humor, particularly in chapter titles. Some of the experiences are hard to read; nature can be cruel. Others are funny. Most all are fascinating. Generally, I read fiction at a rapid pace and assign myself a set number of daily nonfiction pages, like I would with medication or a homework assignment. Beyond Words was highly readable, and I found myself actually wanting to surpass my mandatory quota. I finished the book in three sittings, though I did find the prose a bit verbose at times. (Maybe I would have finished in two, with a bit more editing!) I would have loved to enclose a few quotations from the text to make my points, but could not since I read an advance reader's edition prior to the book's release date. Recommended for those interested in animal behavior.

Review by

Humans are human- and we are also animals, with our physical lives on a continuum with other animals.Safina is persuasive enough to convince anyone but the most rigid that "mere animals" share much with us, in terms of intelligence, emotions, sense of humor, and individuality- not to mention social groups and ties.I thought it an excellent point that , regarding many of the "tests" for animal intelligence, etc.- most humans would not pass them. Dogs are stupid because they can be fooled? What about humans victimized by con artists? And, OK, my cat is not going to write a symphony... but then, neither am I!This book is beautifully written, and brings many of the other denizens of our world alive.Highly recommended, both for people interested in the other animals that share our planet, and for sf authors interested in writing persuasive aliens.I received this book in exchange for writing a fair review, from LibraryThing.

Review by

This is an excellent compendium of animal behavioral studies, although I was already aware of almost all of them before. But for those who have not read much ethology, the findings in this book are laid-out in a comprehensive, accessible, and interesting way. As for new information, most of that relates to the accelerated pace at which humans are killing off other species. And it is very depressing data indeed.The evidence amassed attesting to the way animals feel and think make the numbers all the more horrific. For example, in the last ten years, poachers have killed <em>one hundred thousand</em> African elephants. From an estimated ten million elephants in the early 1900s, there are only some 400,000 in Africa today, with another 30,000 to 40,000 killed <em>every year</em> - an elephant every fifteen minutes! To give some specific examples, Kenya’s elephant population is down 90 percent, Uganda’s 85 percent, the Congo is down 90 percent, and Sierra Leone has <em>no</em> elephants left. These elephants are mostly killed for ivory, with the proceeds often going to finance terrorist armies, such as Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army in Uganda, Sudan’s Janjaweed, and possibly even Al Qaeda’s Al Shabab wing.The book goes on to document depredation of other species, while also explaining how and why the effects of such violence are so disruptive to animal families and communities. With elephants, the biggest ivory comes from the oldest family members, and so the leadership of the family units, along with knowledge about how best to survive, is destroyed along with the elephant. Youngsters are particularly affected. The author discusses the many sounds made by animals that humans can hear, as well as the fact that they make many sounds that are outside of our hearing range. (Elephants, for example, make sounds that span ten octaves, but humans cannot hear the low frequencies without special equipment. Further, they even have special receptors in their feet to pick up rumbles over long distances, often from several miles away.) He notes that just because we can’t understand their “languages” doesn’t mean they don’t have any. (Think of how they might interpret the sounds <em>we</em> make!) Nor does the fact that they don’t verbalize feelings mean they are without them. As he argues persuasively, genetically we aren’t very different from other animals. It is unrealistic to conclude that thinking and feeling arose without evolution. He observes that each characteristic of higher animals reflects a slight tweak on something older:“Everything humans do and possess came from somewhere. Before humans could be assembled, evolution needed to have most of the parts in stock, and those parts were developed for earlier models. We inherited them.”Not just language, but such evolutionary success-conferring behaviors like the ability to form deep social bonds developed through time: “parental care, satisfaction, friendship, compassion, grief - all began their journey in pre-human beings.”He reviews data on the behavior of all kinds of animals including lions, crows, wolves, and whales, <em>inter alia</em>. In each case, he provides an abundance of evidence that these animals experience consciousness, but that it is in the interest of greedy humans to deny this fact. He wants to wake us up however to “how other animals experience the lives they so energetically and so determinedly cling to.” He does a great job, concluding with an argument not just for human civilization, but for <em>humane</em> civilization, for <em>all</em> life on earth:“The greatest story is that all life is one. The world will be saved not be calculation but by compassion. I wish everyone understood this. It has at times seemed to me that killer whales and elephants are among the few who do.”But you cannot come away from this book without also understanding this simple concept. I wish it were required reading for all of earth’s citizens.

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