Peter Wohlleben, author of the best-selling ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’, explores the emotions and intelligence of animals in his new book. New scientific discoveries in this field have big moral implications, he says. A review and an excerpt, plus the video of an eye-opening talk by animal ethologist Jonathan Balcombe on the inner life of animals.
John Henry Newman, later Cardinal Newman, once told his congregation that they lived among spirits they could not see. He told them this in a sermon called “The Invisible World”. Angels and the souls of the dead were constantly active, but people’s senses could not perceive them. Anyone who found this difficult to believe should remember, Newman said, that, after all, there was another surrounding world of which people knew almost as little: the animal world. Animals were everywhere. Their presence was familiar. Yet the emotional lives of these creatures, their perceptions and the reasons for their behaviour, remained so hidden that Newman could compare this concealed life to a world of spirits.
Peter Wohlleben is a Rhineland forester who became unhappy with industrial methods. Remarkably, he persuaded the municipal owners of his forest to end their commercial contracts and abandon those methods. He is scientific and secular, yet he too perceives that we live in a world of intelligence and emotional complexity that goes unseen. Traditional relationships with farm animals, hunted animals and pets have always provided insights into that world, but only science can reveal the depths. Combining scientific reports with tales of his own observations, Wohlleben tentatively begins to uncover that world and explore its implications for our behaviour.
In 2015, his book The Hidden Life of Trees revealed a forest unimagined by most walkers. Communities of trees will send sugar through their roots or through underground thread-like fungi to keep alive the stumps of felled individuals. These fungal networks connect all the trees in an undisturbed forest. A teaspoon of soil contains many miles of filaments. One scientist calls them the “wood wide web”. They take chemical information from tree to tree – about predators, weather, drought and other damage.
Trees also signal to each other by releasing chemicals, and when a tree recognises the saliva of an insect that is eating its leaves, the tree releases pheromones that attract the right predators. Wohlleben reveals the forest as a complex system of entities reacting to each other. There are families, communities, rogue individuals, symbiotic exchanges and predator-prey relationships. Large things are the product of small, and vice versa. The Hidden Life of Trees became a surprise international bestseller.
Environmentalists hope that such books will bring new scientific and ethical perspectives to a public audience. Wohlleben writes in support of the new biology that challenges the old idea that plants and many animals are little more than mechanisms. Deprived of that view, intensive industrial farming would be unconscionable. Early on, he asks the fundamental question: “Is there really only one way – the human way – to experience feelings intensely and perhaps consciously?”
In 2012, leading neuroscientists published “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness”, which stated that the physical processes associated with consciousness in humans could be found in many other creatures, including insects and molluscs. The neocortex – the outer layer of the upper brain, possessed only by mammals and most highly developed in humans and apes – was not the only organ producing emotion and intention. Could the popularity of Wohlleben’s writing, and the current surge in nature writing of all kinds, be evidence not only of our environmental worries but of the arrival in mainstream culture of a new delight in the complexity of ecological relationships? Can we respond to the science by developing a new sense of kinship and responsibility?
The Inner Life of Animals poses these questions more challengingly. Wohlleben’s revelations about trees were startling, but it remains hard to entertain the idea that our consciences should be troubled by plants feeling pain and fear. We can feel delight at the intricate, sensitive lives of trees without having to question our continuing use of wood. Animals are another matter. Discoveries about animal feelings and intelligence raise questions of conscience with which we already struggle.
So The Inner Life of Animals does not have quite the power to surprise that the tree book did. And there is not quite the same atmosphere of place. Shafts of light and mossy greens fill The Hidden Life of Trees. The reader does not leave the forest, and this aura intensifies the awareness of intricate natural life that the book has to offer. So much is happening in this one place. The colours, airs and sounds are all connected. They give us contact with the invisible world we now know to be there.
The Inner Life of Animals has something of this effect, since it too is pervaded by one ecosystem. Most of the anecdotes feature animals in Wohlleben’s forest or his home and paddocks. There are squirrels, butterflies, deer, jays, hedgehogs, moths, foxes, mice, weevils, woodpeckers, beetles, slow worms, slime moulds, wild boar, dogs, horses, goats, bees, ravens, rabbits, crows, sparrowhawks and swifts. Only occasionally does he look further afield, to laboratory animals or vampire bats. Still, the stories are more dispersed than in the tree book, more loosely related. There is not the same concentration of light and colour. But the book is always fascinating.
Voice more than place holds the stories together. Wry, avuncular, careful and kind, Wohlleben guides us from one creature to the next. When horns sound for the first time each year, wild boar swim the Rhône to Geneva where hunting is outlawed. Mice are distressed when another mouse suffers, especially one they know. Sows act as midwives for their daughters. When a crow sees Wohlleben watching, it pretends to bury the acorn it is carrying, and surreptitiously takes the treasure elsewhere. Wanting to fill its crop with the corn Wohlleben always brings, the crow does not eat the acorn immediately. But Wohlleben must not see where the nut is hidden.
Chimps see themselves in a mirror and rub off paint that scientists have dabbed on their faces. They know they are seeing images of themselves. Slime moulds, single-cell organisms with many nuclei, previously classified as fungi but now of uncertain status and possibly animals, find their way to food through mazes, detecting from their trails that they have taken a path before. A great tit sounds the alarm call when no hawk is present in order to scare off other tits and take the best food. Each story adds to a widening vision of intelligence, emotion and relationship.
A technique that helps Wohlleben establish his friendly tone is the use of affectionate anthropomorphisms. Squirrels are “rusty rascals”. Slow worms attracted to the warmth of the road surface are “little sun-worshippers”. At first these phrases seemed cartoonish, but as the book deepens, they acquire a different meaning. Wohlleben makes us ponder, throughout, whether it is right to think of animal abilities using concepts that describe human intelligence and emotion.
There is no simple answer. To do so denies the animals their strangeness, but to refuse is to restrain the moral meaning that animals have for us – the complex, developing, non-reductive meaning. It is to deny the capacity of animals to suggest things about ourselves. Finding such meaning in animals is one of our primal ways of relating to them.
Anthropomorphism is necessary, then, but it must be accompanied by recognition of strangeness. The gently teasing phrases pull the reader up short and prompt that correction.
One piece of behaviour provokes this dilemma starkly. Male bears, like male lions and tigers, kill cubs that other males have fathered. They do this to bring the mother back into season. It is an act that shocks television narrators. Wohlleben says we should not regard these males as evil, since the behaviour is normal for the species. He could have gone on to say that, without blaming the males, we need to feel horrified by the loss of those infant lives. The book’s impulse throughout is a willingness to value all forms of life quite as far as is humanly possible.
The Inner Life of Animals: Surprising Observations of a Hidden World
By Peter Wohlleben
It should be clear by now that whether they are driven by their circumstances or our desires, whether they want to or not, animals love people (and, of course, the reverse is true).
I consider gratitude to be a closely related emotion. And animals can certainly feel gratitude, as well. Owners of dogs with checkered pasts that have been welcomed into families later in life are particularly well placed to confirm this.
Our cocker spaniel, Barry, didn’t come to us until he was nine years old. Actually, after the death of our Münsterländer, Maxi, we wanted to draw the dog chapter of our lives to a close. Or so we thought. Despite the fact that my wife, Miriam, was absolutely opposed to a new family member, our daughter set out to convince us otherwise. She didn’t get much resistance from me, because I couldn’t really imagine life without a dog. When my daughter accompanied me to a fall market at a nearby country store, both of us were aware of what might happen. The Euskirchen animal shelter was going to have a parade of its guests, hoping to find homes for them that day.
My daughter and I were hugely disappointed when the only animals on display were rabbits, because we already had plenty of those at home. After waiting around the market all day, making multiple tours of the stalls, here we were, confronted with this—no dogs. Right at the very end, there was an announcement that a future occupant was going to be shown by one of its former owners before being delivered to the shelter: Barry. Our hearts beat faster. The dog was apparently extremely good natured, a model passenger in the car, and he was neutered. Perfect! We leapt up from the bench and stepped forward. A short test walk, a handshake to seal the agreement for three days’ probation, and we took off right away with the dog in the car, headed for Hümmel.
The three-day trial was important, because Miriam didn’t suspect anything yet. She came back late that night after an engagement. She was taking her coat off, when my daughter asked: “Do you notice anything different?” My wife looked around and shook her head. “Then take a look down at your feet,” I prompted. And in that instant, it happened. Barry looked up at her, wagging his tail, and my wife took him into her heart right then and there for the rest of his life. And the dog was grateful—grateful that his long and arduous journey had finally ended.
His owner, an old lady suffering from dementia, had had to give him up. He’d gone through two different families, and now he had found his forever home with us. It’s true that for the rest of his life, he worried that there might be yet another handover, but other than that Barry was always happy and friendly. He was grateful. It was as simple as that—or was it?
After all, how are you supposed to measure gratitude or—what’s almost as difficult—to define it? If you check on the web, you’ll find a lot of discussion but nothing definitive. Some animal lovers think of gratitude as their due, a response many owners expect from their animals in return for the care they give them. I wouldn’t even bother to search for this kind of gratitude in animals, for it would merely be an expression of subservience smacking of servility. Essentially, and this is in reference to people, what emerges from most definitions is that gratitude is a positive emotion arising from an enjoyable experience caused by someone or something else. In order to be grateful, you need to be able to recognize that someone (or life) has done you a good turn.
The Roman politician and philosopher Cicero considered gratitude to be the greatest of all virtues, and he thought dogs were capable of feeling it. But now it gets tricky. How can I know whether an animal recognizes who or what has caused its enjoyable experience? In contrast to the joy itself (which is easy to recognize in a dog), there’s also the question of whether the dog gives any thought to the cause of its joy. It’s relatively simple to answer this question. There’s food, for starters. The dog is happy about its meal and knows exactly who filled its bowl. In fact, dogs often encourage their owner to repeat the process.
But is this really gratitude? You could just as easily call it begging. Doesn’t true gratitude include a mindset, a way of looking at life? An ability to celebrate small pleasures without constantly craving more? Seen from this perspective, gratitude is when joy and contentment about circumstances that are not of your own making coincide. Unfortunately, this kind of gratitude cannot yet be proven in animals—we can do no more than speculate about their inner outlook on life. In Barry’s case, at least, my family and I are certain that he was both happy and content to have found his final home with us, even if we don’t have any scientific proof.
But how about other examples in the animal world? Might they shed more light on the issue? There is the story of a humpback whale in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico that put on an hour-long display of breaching and flipper flapping after a man called Michael Fishbach spent hours cutting off a fishing net in which it had been hopelessly entangled. When Fishbach encountered the whale, it looked as though it would not be able to survive for much longer. Fishbach immediately entered the water armed with just a small knife. As soon as the whale was free, it put on a glorious acrobatic display. Perhaps it was just happy not to be entangled in the net anymore—or perhaps it was performing for the people in the small boat to thank them for rescuing it from certain death.
Howling with wolves: A classical pianist’s testimony
Wolves actually harmonize their voices with us, says Helene Grimaud. “When a human joins in a howl and his pitch lands on the same note, wolves will alter their pitch to prolong the harmonization. If you end up on the same pitch as a wolf, he‘ll modulate his voice to match yours.”
German forest ranger finds that trees have social networks, too
Sally McGrane, The New York Times
Peter Wohlleben has delighted readers with the news — long known to biologists — that trees are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger; and, for reasons unknown, keep ancient stumps of their long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.