May 18, 2022

“The social life of animals:” a dazzling compendium of the sociality of animals

Bonobos favor friends over food. Suspicious rats warn their friends about treats that are too good to be true. The African buffalo chooses its next destination by voting. Dolphins address each other by name. If you’ve ever been curious about the human behaviors of animals or exactly how the masses of ants head straight for that ice cream cone you just dropped, British biologist Ashley Ward breaks it down into The social life of animals (Basic Books, 2022) and shows how we share social impulses with other animal cultures around the world.

“Philosophers throughout the ages have attempted to define traits that are uniquely human — characteristics, in other words, that can be used to separate us from other animals,” Ward writes. An affable world tour guide, he shows why our species might not be so special after all while shedding light on patterns of human society.

Ward’s case studies are revealing. African vervet monkeys, for example, work together to steal alcohol from bars and sleeping tourists. And elephants develop infrasonic sounds for a private communication channel that helps them stay in touch across vast landscapes.

Ward doesn’t shy away from the less attractive aspects of our common nature – showing how insects use slaves and chimpanzees exhibit an enigmatic mix of “brutality and compassion, altruism and selfishness” – or the fact that we have exploited the sociable nature of animals . Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century whalers, for example, were well aware that sperm whales rushed to their distressed peers.

A dazzling compendium of animal intelligence and sociability, this reading proves that the latter is a fundamental aspect of existence and that the company we keep has fundamentally shaped us, all beasts.