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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals


A Selection from the Ark
Number 216 - Winter 2010
Book Review - Second Nature

Second Nature: the inner lives of animals, Jonathan Balcombe. New York/Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN: 9780230613621, 2010, $27/£20

Jonathon Balcombe is a biologist specialising in animal behaviour. He is, therefore, well placed to assess the available scientific research on the inner lives of animals. His opening chapter focuses on animal sensitivity, including sensitivity to pain. Balcombe suggests that not only do animals feel pain, in some cases they may feel pain more acutely than do humans. This is followed by a discussion about comparative umwelt.

Our umwelt is our perceptual world, how we experience sensory input. This section of the book is full of fascinating descriptions of the special adaptations possessed by a variety of species for experiencing their world. The point that Balcombe makes here is that we cannot assume that because animals do not perceive the world as we do they do not experience it richly. In fact, their adaptations may allow them to experience and perceive far more of the world than we can. Subsequent chapters cover the areas we might expect in such a book, namely animal intelligence, animal emotions and language. The chapter on virtue is particularly revealing and interesting. Balcombe suggests, probably correctly, that we have until now failed to see virtuous behaviour in other species not because it isn’t there, but because of our own prejudice. Many animals possess the physiological structures in the brain necessary for moral behaviour and related emotions, such as empathy.

The last two chapters of the book focus on humanity – the abuses we have inflicted on animals, which makes for depressing reading, but also the improvements being made. The last chapter looks at recent changes to animal welfare laws in the USA and Europe that give reason to hope for a better future. This is a well-written and engaging book. Although Balcombe is a scientist and makes reference to scientific studies throughout the book, it is written for laymen and is an easy read.

Coming from a scientific background myself, I would have preferred more detail about some of the studies he cites, but the list of references at the end of the book is comprehensive, so it is certainly possible to find and read his sources, for those who want a bit more. This book will make an excellent resource for anyone looking for a way to counter the argument, ‘there’s no evidence that animals are intelligent’ or ‘You can’t prove scientifically that animals have feelings’. The studies cited by Balcombe demonstrate that you can. Perhaps the best reason for reading this book, and giving it to those who are still to be convinced about the animal cause is, as Balcombe himself says, ‘it is important for us to be conscious of other animals’ own forms of intelligence, awareness and virtues ... not to liken them to us, but rather so that we might realise that they have lives worth living’.

Jennifer Brown

Go on to:  Climate and Christ
Return to: The Ark Number 216 - Winter 2010

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