Understand the minds of animals with these great reads

We are currently seeing the beginnings of a new Copernican revolution – the realization that the human mind is not the only one and that truly “alien spirits” are all around us on our home planet. This includes the minds of strange creatures like the octopus and, you guessed it, bees.

Most people today are aware that bees are in trouble due to habitat loss and pesticides, and that means problems because we need bees to pollinate our crops. But relatively few people know that these fascinating creatures perceive, think and feel about the world in an entirely different way than we do, but this way is no less valid.

Researchers have delved ever deeper into the psychology of these insects over the past few decades, and this research has changed the way we see the minds of others. We now know that bees can count, remember pictures of human faces, learn how to use tools by observing others, and even display forms of culture. The observation that they are most likely sentient has important ethical implications for their ecological conservation.

We humans are just one of many thinking and feeling beings on earth and we have a responsibility to protect the environment that has shaped the many other minds around us.

Bee brains are unique in the animal kingdom in terms of the amount of material packed into their tiny nervous systems. In my book I examine the psychological differences between bees and the ethical dilemmas that arise in the conservation and laboratory environment because bees feel and think.

If you like my new book, The spirit of a bee (£25, Princeton University Press) then I have put together this list of further reading which I hope will pique your curiosity to learn more about the mind of the animal kingdom.

If you’re keen to browse more great science books, check out this list of the best science books.

Read more about bees:

5 of the best books on animal minds


Stanislaus Lem

Perhaps counterintuitively, I begin my recommendations with an exceptionally thought-provoking science fiction novel. It is about (among many other philosophical and psychological issues) the futility of understanding other – in this case alien – thoughts using only humans as a point of reference.

As a frustrated scientist explains in the book: “We’re just looking for people. We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors.” As a matter of fact. If we want to understand other minds, we must first understand what is important to them (not us). This is exactly what the alien in the book is trying to communicate with people – which in this case, however, leads to psychological horror scenarios.

Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?

The book cover of Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are

Franz von Waal

This book deconstructs the still widespread belief that many aspects of human intelligence are unique to our species. Using examples from across the animal kingdom, the author shows that skills such as tool making, mental perspective-taking, self-awareness, and forms of culture are not unique to us and our closest relatives, but have convergently emerged in a range of other animals.

The book is thus a thought-provoking counterpoint to human exceptionalism, and contains many indications that evolution is likely to produce intelligent behavior in a variety of forms when an animal’s environment demands it.

Other Spirits: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

The book cover of Other Minds

Peter Godfrey Smith

Cephalopods, including squid, cuttlefish, and cuttlefish, are some of the world’s most bizarre creatures. Lacking bones or an outer shell, they can change shape and look a bit like some of Gary Larson’s alien cartoons. They are also uniquely intelligent, at least when compared to other molluscs like snails and oysters, which aren’t exactly known for their intelligence.

Godfrey-Smith convincingly argues that this is why intelligent life evolved more than once on planet Earth. He wonders if consciousness, once thought to be a uniquely human feat, arose early in animal evolution as part of the need to interpret one’s senses, flee from predators, and find food.

If Nietzsche were a narwhal

The book cover of If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal

Justin Gregg

This is a beautiful, thought provoking, and often hilarious exploration of the different types of minds on this planet. Justin Gregg points out that while many traits of human intelligence are found in some form in animals, from insects to narwhals, humans are definitely exceptional. But our intelligence is still limited by our evolutionary history; We may be too intelligent for our own good and too stupid to take care of our planet with enough long-term planning perspective.

Gregg’s great book is a poignant reminder that if we don’t up our game quickly, we may once again surrender the earth to the rule of insects and other supposedly less intelligent creatures.

Can fish count?

Can Fish Count book cover

Brian Butterworth

Unlike the other books, which deal extensively with questions of animal minds, this book is about a specific cognitive ability: the number sense. The arithmetic system we learned in school seems to many to be the pinnacle of the human intellect. but Can count fish explores the fascinating ways of counting around the world from the Incas, Mayans and Warlpiri, then deep into prehistory to Neanderthals and animals as diverse as primates, insects and – you guessed it – fish.

Brian Butterworth’s fascinating research shows that counting is ubiquitous and has been with us since our Cambrian ancestors. This is likely true of other aspects of animal intelligence as well: its early roots could go back over 500 million years.

The spirit of a bee by Lars Chittka is available now (£25, Princeton University Press)

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