The Inner Lives of Animals

Writers wonder if animals have minds like ours—and how important that question is: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A goat and a cockatiel conversing with each other
Bettmann / Getty

Not very long ago, eagles were rats in America’s public imagination. Despite the bald eagle’s position as a national symbol, the actual bird was widely despised until about the mid-20th century. Before that point, many people treated them like rodents and killed them without discretion—while also unselfconsciously admiring the bird’s likeness on government seals, coins, and memorabilia. In The Bald Eagle, Jack E. Davis offers a twofold biography: He traces the histories of both the emblem and the creature and describes how patriotic pleas for conservation finally allowed their public perception to merge. Most revealing is what he says about American exceptionalism.

Throughout history, animals have often served as proxies for very human hang-ups. In what Jill Lepore calls “the most important animal-rights case of the 21st century,” a captive elephant named Happy has become a mascot for these tensions. The case for her freedom relies on an enigmatic question: Is she a person? Likewise, as a species, the octopus is a strange peer, given that our most recent mutual ancestor lived about 600 million years ago. Yet their expressive behavior has a familiar tinge of sentience. Olivia Judson grapples with scientists’ slippery definitions of nonhuman intelligence. She also wonders if our dissection of the octopus’s “mind” is an attempt to alleviate our own kind’s loneliness.

Maybe we can find communion by embracing others’ singularity. Frans de Waal’s book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? challenges the common tendency to see intelligence in other genera as a straightforward hierarchy. In her review, Alison Gopnik instead proposes that bonobos and crows—and even human children!—are special and valuable for the ways they are different from us.

When Anand Giridharadas profiled V. S. Naipaul in 2011, he noted that in both his travelogue The Masque of Africa and their conversation, Naipaul identified strongly with the animals he encountered, articulating a surprising tenderness rarely seen in his assessments of humans. “A cat only has itself,” he kept repeating to Giridharadas; later, he drew a parallel to a writer’s own isolation. Except a cat is not a writer. A cat, or an elephant, may not need to be a person. Perhaps, in being itself, it has more than enough.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

portrait of a bald eagle looking to the right and perched on a branch

Dan Winters

America’s love-hate relationship with the bald eagle

“In the end, balds and human beings face the same challenge: how to live together in peace.”

Close-up of Happy the Elephant's face

Happy at the Bronx Zoo (Photograph by Daniel Shea for The Atlantic)

The elephant who could be a person

“This case isn’t about an elephant. It’s about the elephant in the courtroom: the place of the natural world in laws and constitutions written for humankind.”

An octopus underwater

Reinhard Dirscherl / Getty

What the octopus knows

“An encounter with an octopus can sometimes leave you with the strong feeling that you’ve encountered another mind.”

Illustration of man galloping with various animals

Christopher Neal

How animals think

“Children and chimps and crows and octopuses are ultimately so interesting not because they are mini-mes, but because they are aliens—not because they are smart like us, but because they are smart in ways we haven’t even considered.”

A portrait of V. S. Naipaul

David Levenson / Getty

V. S. Naipaul: The constant critic, the lover of animals

The Masque unmasks Naipaul—whose reputation for callousness toward humans is legendary—as a besotted, almost tender, lover of animals.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Nicole Acheampong. The book she just borrowed is Flyboy in the Buttermilk, by Greg Tate.

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