“Every year about 10 people are killed by sharks, and each death is lavishly reported on bulletins and front pages. And, every year, up to 73 million sharks are slaughtered by humans, but hardly anyone notices – apart from the sharks, of course.
This isn't the only uncomfortable statistic in Jonathan Balcombe's Second Nature. Fifty billion land animals are killed each year to provide us with food, and probably the same number of fish; 100 million mice, rats, rabbits, monkeys, cats, dogs and birds are used and destroyed annually in American laboratories; 50 million animals are killed for fur. Against these unimaginably vast numbers, pleads Balcombe, we have to remember one simple fact: each of these animals was a sentient being. Balcombe's previous book, Pleasurable Kingdoms, described how animals enjoy themselves, from masturbating monkeys to pigs lounging in the sun. Drawing on a similarly wide range of examples, Second Nature describes how animals experience the world as sensitively and intensely as humans, if not more so.
We like to think of ourselves as perceptive but, compared to many animals, we are actually rather insensitive brutes, pretty much blind, nearly deaf, divorced from our environments. In all sorts of different species, Balcombe finds strong evidence for compassion, cooperation, altruism, empathy, intelligence and communication. Australian researchers, for instance, discovered that chickens have at least 30 different calls, alerting one another to the appearance of unexpected food or prowling hawks, while prairie dogs have at least 100 "words" describing predators, including different terms for humans with and without guns.
Among his wide range of anecdotes and examples, I particularly liked the sound of Kelly, a dolphin living in the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi. There, the dolphins have been trained to clean up their own pools, by being offered treats in exchange for bringing litter to the surface and handing it over. Kelly has found her own way to trick the system: when a piece of paper falls into her pool, she sneaks it to the bottom and tucks it under a rock. When she sees a human trainer, she tears off a scrap, takes it to the surface and gets a snack in exchange, leaving the rest of the paper for next time.
Balcombe devotes a couple of chapters to dismissing the myth that nature is a cruel and bloody place where violence lurks at every corner. Most of the time, he says, animals lead peaceful, calm and enjoyable lives. The most violent creature on the planet is, of course, us. We are "moral toddlers", he says, and, like any ordinary two-year-old, we blithely wander around our environment, chomping and stomping and shoving and breaking things without much thought for anyone else.
Balcombe tells us that he's been a vegan for more than 30 years – and, unsurprisingly, he recommends that his readers become vegetarians – but there's a more radical message at the heart of his book. In order to heal ourselves, he suggests, we have to reform our relationships with animals; we will ‘live in better, more caring societies when we treat all feeling individuals with compassion and respect’…It is fascinating, well-written and consistently thought-provoking, and deserves a wide readership.”—The Guardian
“Jonathan Balcombe is a rare being, a scientist who has escaped the narrow orthodoxies of institutional science, an intelligent human being who is more than ready to recognize intelligences of other kinds, an intuitive and empathetic observer who nevertheless does not abandon the highest standards of intellectual inquiry.”— from the foreword by J. M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and author of Disgrace