You are not so smart, and animals are not so dumb: a science twofer

Last week I read You Are Not So Smart, an often interesting if sometimes trivial review of how mental shortcuts get us in trouble. My reading of Suspicious Minds led into this, and they shared some common ground. The shortcuts assayed are not as obvious as prejudice and logical fallacies, though those do pop up. All told, there are nearly fifty subjects covered, to varying length and skill — ranging from the genuinely interesting to the somewhat obnoxious. Think of the series, “Adam Ruins Everything” to get a sense of the tone of some of these. Some of the bright lights were the article on priming, or how we’re subconsciously manipulated , and the ever-worth-contemplating Dunning-Kreuger effect. I appreciated the collection on the whole, because no amount of reminders about our mental foibles is ever enough, whether we receive nudges through quotes and quips or in this case through pop-science articles. Here we are reminded of the fluidity of memory; of how rarely other people actually think about us, and the absurdity of constantly dwelling on how we’re perceived by others; and the ease in which we slip into conformity with the slightest pressure — conforming even when we attempt to rebel.

More generally engaging, but offering about the same amount of content in a different subject, was Peter Wohlleben’s Hidden Lives of Animals. Wohlleben is a German forester whose decades spent studying and working for the health of intact woodlands was put to excellent use in The Hidden Lives of Trees, probably my favorite science read of 2019. His take on animals’ interior lives — not just their emotions, but their sensations and the commonalities between our experiences — is not as stellar. There’s no shortage of interesting topics covered here, but there are so many and they’re dispatched with such haste that I left disappointed. While Wohleben is a talented writer and observer, that haste also resulted in anthropomorphizing his subjects here all too often, as when he suggested that dogs are modest and turn away when they poop so they can pretend you’re not watching them. (Or, perhaps since they’re in a vulnerable position, they’re turning their backs to an entity they’re sure won’t attack them to better monitor threats from other directions. This is my own guess, not that I’ve ever seen a dog turn away from me to poop.) Here contained are many entertaining stories about animals matching human expressions of emotion, and often shadows of purpose and intent; Wolhleben uses them to assert that emotions are the language of the unconscious, that instinct and will are not nearly as cleanly-cut as we’d like. I suspect this book will prompt me to read How Emotions are Made (one of my dust-gathering science TBR titles) sooner than later.

Forthcoming: a review for Spillover, and I’m hoping to add Frans de Waal’s book on animal emotions and Asimov’s book on the polar regions of the world to finish up my science reading for the year.

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 You are not so smart, and animals are not so dumb: a science twofer

  1. Mudpuddle says:

    the first one sounds illuminating. i’ve experienced the unreliability of memory myself on numerous occasions; when i’ve been positive beyond a shadow of a doubt that i recall accurately something that occurred in the past only to discover later that it was all illusionary… disconcerting to say the least, lol…

    • You’re not alone! Keeping journals made me realized early on how memory can play tricks on us. I often remembered things very differently than how they happened — and at least once, I’ve converted dreams into memories.

  2. I’ve been wanting to read You Are Not So Smart for awhile. And I so agree that we need to be reminded of our foibles. I must get this book out of the library. If I remember correctly, it was a quick read.

  3. I have gone back and forth on You Are Not So Smart for a while and whether I should make room for it or not. Now I probably will. Thanks!

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