Book Review: The Social Lives Of Animals By Ashley Ward

In a world awash with books pushing glossy, narrow arguments about the cognitive and social abilities of certain animals, Ashley Ward’s brilliant The Social Lives of Animals invigorates and astonishes with stories well told about species throughout the animal kingdom. Ward has no ax to grind and no dissertation to sell. He merely wants to awaken readers to fascinating details of the lives of cooperative animals.

Ward is the director of the Animal Behavior Lab at the University of Sydney; he teaches and performs fieldwork in exotic locations. Perhaps this accounts for his ability to give what he write about his research and that of generations of others with panoramic sweep. We learn from him surprising and occasionally hilarious news about bees, locust swarms, termites and ants, about guppies, humbugs, and piranhas, about starlings, pigeons, crows, ravens, and tits, and on and on through species of rodents, herd animals, large carnivores including dogs and lions, aquatic mammals, and primates.

Ward sketches each scene intriguingly, giving a sense of landscape and the characters involved, and then lets each scene teem with social learning and communication among and across animal species. His storytelling style has made me a fan of rats (evidently, they’re kind—as long as you’ve already been kind to them) and hyenas (they can be affectionate). After reading Ward’s book, I now suspect I know why I yawn in certain situations. (Among baboons, anyway, it may be a way to signal that you’re not dangerous.) I no longer feel as ashamed when I try to shirk responsibility for occasional impatience. (Koko, a gorilla who was raised at the San Francisco Zoo and taught sign language, once ripped a sink from a wall and tried to blame the cat.) Chimps kiss to make up. Bonobos have sex to say hello.

Hey, we’re all human.

Actually, Ward never says that or anything like it. He draws no simplistic parallels to make anything like an “all life is equally valuable” or “let’s all be vegetarians starting now” argument. Though he does explicitly say that the societies that social animals form have obvious parallels with human societies. They share some of our strengths and some of our weaknesses. Not all, some. Yes, we can defend our territory. But the next time we grab for a can of bug spray to wipe out, say, termites or kitchen ants, we might want to at least blink and acknowledge the social cost of what we’re about to do.


The Social Lives of Animals

By Ashley Ward

384 pages.

Basic Books.

Publication date March 1, 2022

EBOOK $17.99 / ISBN-13: 9781541600843

HARDCOVER $30.00 / ISBN-13: 9781541600836

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