Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn Who They Are by Carl Safina
Published: March 24, 2020 by Henry Holt and Co
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Synopsis: Becoming Wild offers a glimpse into cultures among non-human animals through looks at the lives of individuals in different present-day animal societies. By showing how others teach and learn, Safina offers a fresh understanding of what is constantly going on beyond humanity. With reporting from deep in nature, alongside individual creatures in their free-living communities, this book offers a very privileged glimpse behind the curtain of life on Earth, and helps inform the answer to that most urgent of questions: Who are we here with?
Review: This book turned out to be nothing like I expected when I clicked on the audiobook. I was hoping for a book that explores whether or how animals show a sense of cultural and belonging. Do animals recognize individuals in their community? Do different animal communities have differing cultures? How much of this can be chalked up to evolutionary learning versus active learning?
That is what the synopsis led me to believe I would be reading. But it wasn’t. Most of it was about the author’s personal agenda on how humans interact with animal culture. And the first 50% of the book talks almost exclusively about sperm whales. Then we had whole chapters that discuss the history of commercial and aboriginal whaling. And then whole chapters on the morality of whaling. And then we continued on the diatribe with a very long bit about ocean pollution. Very little of the first 50% of the book was actually about how and why whales experience culture and cultural learning. I was really bored. If I wanted a book about sperm whales, I would have read one.
We even got a long rant about how humans give names to whale species. The author spent a lot of time wondering why humans give whales “demeaning” or “diminutive” names like false killer whale or pygmy sperm whale. And he wondered if perhaps this was to lessen their value in our own eyes so we could more easily kill them. Well, that might be true, but I don’t think the whales really care what we call them.
Also, just for fun, I bring you this particular quote: “I’m not sure yet who these whales are but they sure have sexy flukes.”….yep, I was a little confused by that one too.
Finally, we moved on from whales to macaws and other birds. We got more of a discussion about animal culture here then before but not much. We got long winded rants about evolution, deforestation, and why certain animals evolved to be beautiful. Though beautiful is a human construct, so I doubt that the birds developed beauty for the reason of beauty.
Another problem was that the audiobook was voiced by the author. Naturally you would think that this would be a good choice, the author knows the inflection, tone, and rhythm of what they intended with their work. But this author seemed confused by his own material. He regularly mispronounced things or paused strangely in the middle of sentences. And then he tried to start putting on voices for excerpts from fiction books or for individuals he spoke with, which was equally strange. And almost all of it was delivered in a monotone. They should have gotten a different performer.
I think this book lacked an identity. The author couldn’t pin down his subject material and so he spent a lot of time roaming whatever came into his mind. This one had potential but it was mostly just confusing.
3 thoughts on “Review: Becoming Wild by Carl Safina”
Lecture notes from a class? Many non-fiction books are NOT planned – but a ‘NYT Bestselling author’ should do FAR better than what you described.
You could probably write a better book yourself, even if you had to do the research to find the information.
I agree that I was expecting much more. He has published dozens of non-fiction nature books. But this one was just a mess. At points it seemed more like a diary entry from a whale watching trip that a tome meant to teach me anything.
‘The emperor has no clothes’ motif.