Second Nature by Jonathan Balcombe

June 25th, 2010

Book Review: Superiority Unproven

Jonathan Balcombe Second NatureSecond Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals by Jonathan Balcombe. Palgrave Macmillan. 256 pages. £20 or $27

Ethology, the scientific study of animal behavior, is an established field of academic endeavor that we now take for granted. But when Jane Goodall began her research in Gombe, Tanzania what is now unthinkable to us happened to her only 50 years ago. She was criticized by her scientific colleagues for describing the chimpanzees she studied as individuals, giving them personal names as opposed to numbers, and talking about them as having unique characters. Goodall saw subjects with psychological and emotional needs who lived lives that mattered to them. Her colleagues saw objects functioning as Cartesian clocks wound up to survive by instinctive impulses. The seventeenth century French philosopher Rene Descartes said animals

have no reason at all, and that it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, just as a clock, which is only composed of wheels and weights is able to tell the hours and measures the time more correctly than we can with all our wisdom.

Balcombe describes this tension with how we dualistically view animals simultaneously as objects and subjects as an “imperialist view.” Further, it is a perspective which is “rocked by our growing awareness of their capabilities and their sentience, and the inescapable fact that on an interdependent planet what befalls them befalls us.” (186) Balcombe’s use of the phrase “imperialist view” signifies a key difference in his approach to writing about ethology from many others. Balcombe, an independent animal behavior research scientist, is a vegan and an animal rights campaigner. And here you have what makes Second Nature and his first book, Pleasurable Kingdom, distinctly different. Balcombe’s writings are a carefully crafted balance of academic rigor and empathic wisdom. For example, he writes in Second Nature that we are at a moment in time when concurrently the number of animals exploited for our consumption is at its greatest and “our relationship to animals is poised for flight.” (186)

The era of our First Nature—in which we view animals as things to be used and taken for shortsighted gains—is coming to an end. Its downfall is inevitable because animal exploitation is unsustainable on our finite planet with a growing human population. The new era is grounded in science and driven by ethics. It is an emergent, less selfish worldview that grants animals the respect and consideration they’re due. I call it Second Nature. (200)

The three sections which make up Second Nature – Experience, Coexistence, Emergence – include summary descriptions of and discussions about academic research cataloging how each animal is a “unique individual with personality traits, an emotional profile, and a library of knowledge built on experience.” In short, “not just biology, but a biography.” (204) Balcombe writes about, for example, democratic bees, cooperative rats, urine-reading elephants and much more. These descriptions are interwoven with accounts from Balcombe’s own non-invasive, scientific research in the field and anecdotal stories from observations he made of his two cats, Mica and Megan, and other animals and birds he’s observed out and about. Indeed, reading Second Nature made me realize the importance of watching nature carefully and how it is possible to learn much from what takes place around you. For example, I live in a small community on the southern English coast which has one of the most densely populated colonies of gulls. In the spring and summer, they nest on nearby rooftops and their mating, breeding and rearing makes fascinating viewing.

As intriguing as it is to learn about the rich and complex lives of animals, the chapters in Second Nature which I found particularly interesting are those in which Balcombe explores the consequences of knowing about the inner lives of animals. This starts with Chapter Eight, “Being Nice: Virtue,” which forcefully makes the case that, as it is for humans, it is also true for animals that there are benefits from living cooperatively in groups. Imagine such a group without the “unwritten moral code,” Balcombe writes, large lions would kill and eat small ones. “Such behavior would soon lead to group disintegration.” He does not claim an “absence of violent conflict in animal societies” (123) but, as he discusses in Chapter Nine, “Rethinking Cruel Nature,” nature is not as “red in tooth and claw” as we would like it to be. For starters, I did not know that Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” is dedicated to a friend who died suddenly. The infamous quote has nothing to do with the alleged behavior of animals at all. It is, of course, understandable to be angry about the sudden loss of a loved one. Nonetheless, we are guilty of misappropriation and misrepresentation every time we take that line from the Victorian poem unrelated to the subject at hand and transform it into a cliché to allege a universal truth about animal behavior that is not true.

Well, then, why do it?

Well, Balcombe argues, for two reasons. Portraying nature as “red in tooth and claw” has the effect of “raising humans to a higher plane and puts us on the moral high ground” and, second, it grants us permission to

claim our own savagery toward animals as merely part of the natural process. Cruel nature absolves us of any guilt for treating its denizens cruelly. Thus, cruel nature provides a sweeping palliative for our own moral shortcomings. Whatever we do, we are justified. (146)

In other words, it is a convenience and an excuse. This leads us back to the beginning and our first nature, the imperial view. What’s so wrong with recognizing ourselves us animals? “It is, after all, Second Nature,” taunts Balcombe. (204)

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