Becoming Wild

Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace
© 2020 Carl Safina
375 pages

In Becoming Wild, ecologist Carl Safina recounts his time spent with field scientists studying cetaceans, macaws, and chimpanzees, to share insights and speculation about the most under-appreciated aspect of animal life on earth: culture. Not only do many animal populations appear to have sharply-defined conceptions of belonging to a particular group — one that distinguishes itself with unique ‘accents’ — but this clannishiness can drive speciation, dividing populations into increasingly distinct subspecies. What’s more, the unique knowledge and habits of a given population mean socialization is as vital for chimpanzees or macaws as it is for humans: bear cubs are taught their diets, and primates their predators, the same way humans learn their letters. Although Becoming often meanders off-topic, it never fails to be fascinating — nor could it, given its primary subjects.

We begin with sperm whales, who lives in elaborate watery clans and only mate within them. The large groups are divided into smaller and smaller subsets, until one arrives at the intimate family circle — and each layer of this social onion declares itself with unique verbal codes, distinct expressions of the clicking ‘language’ that sperm whales use to communicate. Each group, each clan has its own clicking ‘tags’ that identify it to the others; different clans of whales avoid contact with one another. Linguistic differentiation between populations within a species is extremely common, across the spectrum of animal life — and it’s often associated with subspeciation. Different whale populations, despite sharing the same genetics, will develop unique subcultures and specializations, never tapping into foodstuffs that other populations rely on as staples. Animal cultures can effectively create social islands in which the subspecies develop physical as well as cultural differences from one another — and if that trend continues long enough, eventually the accumulated physical differences are enough to make cross-group breeding an impossibility. Et voila, a new species!

Not only do many animals have a knowledge of the group they belong to, one that alters what they eat and who they mate and where they live, but they actively depend on that group’s knowledge to sustain them. Birds learn most of their repertoire of songs and alarms from their families: without them, they can only do the equivalent of bird-babbling and grunting. Individuals within a group acquire knowledge unique to them, or hit upon a way of obtaining food. If the knowledge-bearing individuals within a group are lost, very often successful behavior can simply disappear from a group. That can lead to disaster: during African droughts, for instance, it is the long memory of elephant matriarchs that allows them to lead the family to distant oases. Another instance of this that Safina shares is a pack of wolves which had found a tactic to counter prey which had a nasty habit of retreating uphill, into terrain the wolves couldn’t navigate: when some of the older wolves were killed, the younger ones hadn’t yet learned the trick, and that particular prey went unexploited in the future. If enough members of a group prematurely perish without passing on their acquired knowledge of the land, the group itself will wither.

Safina’s approach in Becoming Wild isn’t simply to recap what he’s learned, but to share the journey; some chapters are diary-like. Much of the book is arguably off topic from the concept of animal acculturation, though if one has an interest in animal behavior, particularly social dynamics, it’s certainly not time wasted: I was never bored for a moment when reading this work. Not only is the subject itself absolutely fascinating, but Safina often waxes lyrical. Regardless, there are focus problems: the section on macaws is more on the concept of beauty itself than the promotion of it through sexual selection. Safina’s discussion there is absolutely enjoyable to consider in its own right, as were the sections on how baboons have adapted to exploiting research camps and the like — but I sometimes wondered when we were getting back to animal culture.

Although not without its quirks, Becoming Wild succeeds in opening a lay reader’s eyes to the importance of animal ‘culture’ across the world — and the emphasis that puts on taking conservation & animal preservation more seriously

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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5 Responses to Becoming Wild

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    Interesting! We don’t often think of other animals – except maybe our fellow Primates – as actually *having* a culture…. Pretty soon we’ll start to realise they can be intelligent too and maybe refrain from killing so many of them…. OK, that last bit was a tad far fetched.. [grin]

    • Sagan’s “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” introduced me to the notion of other primates having cultures, so reading more about it here was thrilling. Different chimpanzee communities have different tool cultures, and interestingly, when a female chimpanzee moves from one community to another (which is the norm), she’ll adopt whatever culture they have instead of introducing them to hers, even if her community’s termite-fishing or nut-cracking tools are better. Chimpanzees are very conforming..and human children even more so!

  2. I’ve never really thought of other animals as having ‘culture’ before. What a compelling read. Thanks for the review.

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