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I get excited by stupid animals. That is to say, animals that most people consider “stupid,” such as insects or chickens. Once, during a safari trip in South Africa, I shouted for the driver to stop the vehicle so I could get out to chase after a dung beetle. While the other tourists looked on with pity and confusion, I snapped a million pictures of the beetle with tears of joy in my eyes.

I'm simply fascinated by the lives of dung beetles. Or hermit crabs. Or chickens. I am fascinated with how they behave and what this means about the way they think. I am a cognitive scientist by trade, and my main study animal is the dolphin, perhaps one of the most intelligent nonhuman animals on the planet. And yet it's the unintelligent ones that have truly captured my heart.

Read our starred review of ‘If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal’ by Justin Gregg.

Usually when a scientist studying animals writes a book meant to get the public excited about animal cognition, they focus on all the ways in which animals think and act like humans. I could have written about, for example, how New Caledonian crows are able to create complex tools out of twigs to help them fish insects out of a log. Then I could have framed this fact as “crows are able to make tools just like humans.” This idea of an animal doing something humanlike is inherently appealing. So the obvious approach would have been for me to write a book regaling readers with examples of complex humanlike (or crowlike) behavior in simple animals—such as how dung beetles use the Milky Way to navigate the African plains.

But I didn't want to do that. I wanted people to get excited about dung beetles for their unintelligence, not their intelligence.

It wasn't until I had a conversation with my editor, Pronoy Sarkar, that I finally figured out how to do this, and the idea for If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal took shape. It isn't a book about animal intelligence, per se—or even about animal unintelligence. It's really more about human stupidity. In it, I call into question the base assumption that human intelligence—our capacity for science and engineering that stems from cognition that is particularly sophisticated and unique to our species—is a good thing. Instead of trying to elevate “stupid” animals by showing how they can think intelligently, I show that thinking intelligently in a humanlike way might actually be a crappy biological solution. Evolutionarily speaking, human intelligence might actually be stupid.

“Evolutionarily speaking, human intelligence might actually be stupid.”

Looking at everything happening in the world today—the conflict in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear war, or the climate emergency, or the deepening political division in many Western democracies—I am honestly concerned about the future of our species. Plenty of pundits are predicting with alarming certainty that the human species is teetering on the brink of extinction—not because of any external forces, such as comets or plagues, but because we are extincting ourselves through carbon emissions and advanced forms of holocaust-inducing warfare. Through things that are, in other words, products of our complex, intelligent way of thinking.

This is precisely why I am asking people to reevaluate the goodness of human intelligence and consider that dung beetles and chickens might in fact be better designed for life on this planet than we are.

I didn't write this book because I think humans are idiots. We are not. We are exceptional in many beautiful ways and a wonder of evolution when viewed from some angles. But from other angles, the human mind is dangerous—capable of both worrying about and bringing about its own extinction. I wrote If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal not to bash humans but to inspire people to widen their love of the animal kingdom. I want people to walk into their garden and marvel at the creatures in it precisely because they aren't as smart as us.

“Dung beetles and chickens might in fact be better designed for life on this planet than we are.”

And yes, I also want people to understand that even the traditionally “stupid” animals aren't actually stupid. Bees and wasps, for example, are far more cognitively complex than most people realize. They have consciousness, emotions and basic math skills. They can problem solve and use tools. They have individual personalities and can recognize faces. They have a lot of the cognitive skills that we used to believe belonged solely to Homo sapiens. But so what? It's not necessarily a good thing to think like a human. In fact, the simplicity of how insects think makes them far more wondrous.

I really hope people take that lesson to heart and are kinder to the creatures around them. All creatures just want to live a pleasure-filled life for the brief moments that we exist on this planet. Fortunately, you don't need intelligence to experience joy. And if there's anything we need more of on this planet right now, it's joy.

Cognitive scientist Justin Gregg extols the virtues of not-so-bright animals.

We may think we know what intelligence is. After all, human intelligence is what enables us to read intriguing nonfiction books such as If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity by animal behavior and cognition researcher Justin Gregg, who works with the Dolphin Communication Project at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. But as Gregg makes clear in his engaging third book, we might not know as much as we think about intelligence. In fact, we might be entirely wrong in our assumptions. It might be time to seriously question “human exceptionalism” and what it means for our species and our planet. To do that, Gregg sets out to answer the question “What good is human intelligence?”

Justin Gregg, author of ‘If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal,’ extols the virtues of stupid animals.

The author begins with a chapter about humans as “why specialists.” Anyone who has been in the presence of a toddler will recognize the “Why?” stage of development. While we may automatically assume that this ability to ask—and discover answers to—every question under the sun is uniformly positive, Gregg asks us to look at this human characteristic through a different lens: “I propose we consider a provocative premise: does asking why give us a biological advantage?” Gregg then takes readers on a time-travel expedition, from 240,000 years ago until today, to demonstrate why certain qualities associated with human intelligence have not, evolutionarily speaking, benefited either our species or the Earth. When humanity's answers to “why questions” are wrong, Gregg explains, they lead to some truly terrible outcomes, including white supremacy and genocide.

Gregg takes readers on a wide-ranging, entertaining journey of discovery in If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal, challenging them to reexamine their assumptions about animals and humans. Along the way, he explores aspects of human experience (such as language use, morality, awareness of death and our capacity to wonder about virtually everything in the universe) and reveals ways in which nonhuman animals experience consciousness themselves. All together, If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is a timely, thought-provoking and often sobering book that will make you look at humans, animals and the future of our planet with new eyes.

According to cognitive scientist Justin Gregg, we might be entirely wrong in our assumption that human intelligence is a good thing.

Readers may be most familiar with Ed Yong from his Pulitzer Prize-winning science writing for The Atlantic. His first book, the New York Times bestselling I Contain Multitudes, explored the world of microbes. In his new work of nonfiction, An Immense World, Yong tackles the realm of animal senses, taking readers on a fascinating journey backed up by impressive research.

Yong's scope is far-reaching, and the issues and scientific concepts involved are sometimes complex. But much like a skilled mountain guide, he takes the time to prepare readers for what lies ahead. In the introduction, Yong not only identifies basic terms (such as stimuli, sense organs and sensory systems) but also provides guideposts for the journey ahead, challenging readers to use their imaginations in order to overcome the blind spots humans inevitably have when trying to understand sensory systems immensely different from our own. As Yong writes, “Our intuitions will be our biggest liabilities, and our imaginations will be our greatest assets.”

Subsequent chapters do indeed engage the imagination. Yong's book is organized by different senses, some which are familiar—such as smell, taste and sound—and others much less familiar. In a chapter titled “The Rippling Ground: Surface Vibrations,” we learn about scientist Karen Warkentin's groundbreaking discovery that embryonic tadpoles can hatch early if they sense a snake attack. Other such fascinating anecdotes abound throughout this book, and it's safe to say readers will have a hard time not sharing newfound knowledge in daily conversation. For example, did you know that Philippine tarsiers emit sounds with frequencies above the ultrasonic boundary, or that 250 species of fish can produce their own electricity?

Yong brings to this project a supreme mastery of science writing for the general reader, so don't be intimidated by the nearly 50-page bibliography. An Immense World is an accessible, illuminating and endlessly exciting reading experience. Yes, nonfiction about science can be page-turning!

While this title is perfect for adult nature lovers, the accessibility of Yong's approach also makes this a wonderful gift for high school or college students interested in science. For at its heart, this treasure of a book is a sober reminder of what's at stake in the 21st century—and today's students will be tomorrow's researchers and citizen scientists. “A better understanding of the senses can show us how we're defiling the natural world,” Yong writes in his closing chapter. “It can also point to ways of saving it.”

An Immense World is an accessible, illuminating and exciting reading experience. Yes, nonfiction about the science of animal senses can be page-turning!

★ Edible Plants

In Edible Plants, Jimmy W. Fike takes native North American plant specimens—such as dandelion, rocket, sassafras, spicebush and pawpaw—out of their natural surroundings and meticulously digitally photographs them against black backdrops. In each image, the stark contrast makes visible the magical potency and potential of these common living things, many of which are often dismissed as weeds. Fike colorizes the edible portions of each plant, while the inedible parts are kept a delicate, even eerie gray. These striking photographs seek to inform, similar to the horticultural photography and illustrations of eras past, perhaps making foragers of us all. But what’s more, they are painstakingly beautiful. This book would make an impressive gift for the naturalist in your life.

Cats & Books

How can we not give a shoutout to Cats & Books, a slim-and-trim, adorable celebration of felines sprawled amid TBR piles and perched on bookshelves? This is a hashtag-to-print project: The photos are crowdsourced from Instagram users worldwide who tagged their photos #CatsandBooks. Now compiled in print, short captions give glimpses of these kitties’ personalities. For example, George from Germany “is a gentle soul and the best office buddy one could ask for.” (Sweet George is shown with a paw flung possessively over a copy of Sally Rooney’s Normal People.) Any person who loves cats and also loves books obviously needs to own this small treasure.

Things You Can Do

Last night at dinner, my daughter complained about the absence of meat in her tacos, which led to a discussion of sustainable eating. She didn’t grasp the connection between a carnivorous diet and climate change, so I brought to the table Things You Can Do and read from Chapter 3, “A Climate-Friendly Diet.” I daresay I got through to her, and I imagine New York Times journalist Eduardo Garcia’s compact, well-sourced guide to fighting climate change and reducing waste will continue to help us play our small but mighty part. Grounded in science, this approachable book offers a 360-degree view of the causes and effects of a warming planet, from reliance on coal to the excesses of modern life, including the overuse of air conditioning, increased meat consumption, car culture and much more. I for one am glad to have this resource, rounded out by beautiful watercolor and gouache illustrations by Sara Boccaccini Meadows, at my fingertips for family meals and beyond.

The natural world and all of its delicate delights take center stage in this month’s roundup of the best and most beautiful lifestyles books.

You don’t need to know anything about the titular subject of Courtney Maum’s The Year of the Horses to appreciate this candid and engaging memoir of how rediscovering a long-abandoned passion helped lift her out of a crisis.

Four years after the birth of her daughter, Nina, novelist Maum found herself drowning in a whirlpool of insomnia-fueled depression, creative stasis and dissatisfaction in her marriage to Leo, a French filmmaker. “I am a blob,” she writes, “struggling through the hours with eyes that will not close.” In search of the relief that even medication and a wise-beyond-his-young-years therapist couldn’t provide, Maum turned to one of her childhood pursuits: horseback riding.

It had been 29 years since Maum abandoned riding lessons at age 9, but she never lost her love for these majestic creatures. Her first lesson as an adult—when “the heat of that beast underneath me, the breadth of his body and the pump of his great heart, had touched something primitive inside”—instantly rekindled her affection. That encounter eventually led her into the “weird sport” of polo, where she learned that putting aside the futile quest for mastery in favor of simply having fun was the path to finding joy.

Through flashbacks to her privileged childhood in Greenwich, Connecticut, Maum also explores some of the roots of her adult angst. Her parents divorced when she was 9, and her younger brother, Brendan, developed some rare and serious medical problems that added to the family’s stress. She traces how some of her more troublesome personality traits from that period—notably a perfectionism that eventually expressed itself as anorexia—continued to manifest in adulthood.

Maum emerged from finding her footing in the world of horses “clearer and braver regarding what I needed in my marriage,” simultaneously discovering a focus and patience that allowed her “to reconnect with the daughter I’d lost track of.” While Maum’s prescription isn’t for everyone, her story reveals how “what pulls us out of darkness can be surprising.” The Year of the Horses shows how the willingness to put aside fear and take on a new challenge in adulthood can unlock a happier life.

You don’t need to know anything about horses to appreciate Courtney Maum’s engaging memoir of rediscovering this long-abandoned passion at a moment of crisis.

Gliding on prose as majestic as his subject, Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental historian Jack E. Davis conveys the breathtaking splendor of the most famous American bird in The Bald Eagle. This bird’s fierce magnificence elevated it to the status of a national symbol that has dominated American iconography from the founding of the Republic to the present.

As Davis points out in his rich cultural and natural history, no other avian species—indeed, no other animal—has “to the same extreme been the simultaneous object of reverence and recrimination.” Before Europeans colonized North America, somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 bald eagles flew and nested in the wild. In spite of the bald eagle’s appearance on the national seal in 1782, not every national leader embraced the eagle; Benjamin Franklin famously called the eagle “a bird of bad moral character who does not get his living honestly.” The bald eagle’s rapacious ways did not sit well with the ranchers and hunters who decimated the species’ population either. “With ornithologists and popular culture portraying eagles as inveterate kidnappers, the myth became a green light for ranchers and farmers to shoot and poison bald eagles in the name of predator control and economic security,” Davis writes. In the 1960s and 70s, the bald eagle population declined even further because of the widespread use of the chemical pesticide DDT.

However, Davis’ spellbinding story doesn’t end there. In the second half of the book, he points to individuals and organizations that have worked tirelessly to pull the bald eagle back from the brink of extinction and restore its numbers, which are now estimated to be as high as they were before European contact with America. Davis concludes with a stirring paean to the bald eagle’s resilience: “Living for itself rather than for humankind, it pursued the evolutionary will for self-preservation and set an example of what can be.”

The Bald Eagle swoops and soars in a dazzling display of writing, evoking the bald eagle’s majesty as it explores the eagle’s place in American history and legend, as well as its role in cultivating a robust environmental movement.

In this rich cultural and natural history, Jack E. Davis’ dazzling writing evokes the bald eagle’s majesty as he explores its place in American history.

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