New Books, Reviewed: Animal Emotions, Deconstructing Detroit and the Science of Winning

Taking a closer look at some of the newest releases in non-fiction

Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures
Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures Courtesy Crown Publishing Group

Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures
by Virginia Morell
As any dog owner knows, canines can communicate a great deal. (Those wide eyes and drooping tail upon your imminent departure are no accident.) Animal communication, cognition, personality and other thought processes are the subject of this charming book about animal intelligence. A science writer for National Geographic and Science, Virginia Morell feigns journalistic neutrality toward her subject, but she cannot hide her excitement at the mental feats and displays of emotion she describes: birds with an artistic sense, cheetahs that die from heartbreak, ants that teach each other how to navigate a new terrain, a parrot that can comprehend the concept of “same” and “different,” gangs of boy dolphins that cooperate to keep their girls in check. The idea of animal intelligence goes back hundreds if not thousands of years, but Morell’s book shows the remarkable degree to which it has remained relatively unstudied until recent decades. Darwin, for instance, wrote anecdotally of his belief that dogs have something like a conscience and religion. But as recently as the 1990s, it was so unfashionable to study canines that one scientist embarking upon that path feared he was putting his career in jeopardy. Now new studies suggest that a border collie can learn new words as fast as a toddler. Morell’s book has a nice arc to its structure—working from generally more basic (although still remarkable) cognitive abilities of creatures like adventurous ants to the complex thinking of chimps—and it is threaded through with philosophical questions that are as thought-provoking as the creatures and experiments she chronicles. What is “friendship,” or “language,” or “compassion,” anyway? Can we learn something about ourselves in studying how these concepts apply to animals?

Detroit: An American Autopsy
by Charlie LeDuff
It is no secret that Detroit has fallen on abysmal times, with violence, corruption and poverty regularly overwhelming the city’s meager resources and sucking the last reserves of faith from embattled residents. So why would a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for the New York Times move there, after having made a successful life for himself in far less blighted places? The pull was one part history: LeDuff’s family traces its roots in Detroit to the early 18th century, when an ancestor made his way to frontier town Fort Detroit. One part family: LeDuff’s closest relatives still eke out an existence in Motor City. And then there was the story: “Bad things are good for us reporters. We are body collectors of sorts.” LeDuff commits himself to a deep investigation and he is so personally tangled in the city’s woes he can hardly avoid going dark and deep. Death and desolation invade his professional and personal life. A firefighter friend perishes in an arsonist’s blaze; his niece dies from a heroin overdose. The streets of Detroit are haunted by innumerable boarded-up buildings; his mother’s former flower shop is among them. What hope this book possesses springs from tiny triumphs: the arsonist’s conviction, a successful fund-raising drive for a girl’s funeral, a surly prostitute who turns friendly when she learns LeDuff’s (deceased) sister was a fellow street­walker. Even collectively, these moments can do only a little to lighten this harsh, unsparing book. But in its darkness, it still remains an utterly gripping requiem for the destruction of an American dream.

Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing
by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
We’ve spent too long, the authors say, telling ourselves to think positive, encourage equality among team members and carefully measure the odds of success. The way to really get ahead? Think negative (at least, envision obstacles so you’re prepared for them), embrace hierarchy (when it comes with clearly defined roles) and jump into the ring even when your odds are slim (if you don’t try, you don’t win). Their arguments are a bit more nuanced than that, but Bronson and Merryman are essentially making the case for competition. “It’s only during competition that we are socially permitted to try our absolute hardest, uncloak our desire to win, and be at our most intense,” they write. Bronson and Merryman are convincing, lively writers and they make some compelling points about the way in which we might cultivate a productive competitive spirit—particularly among those who often don’t end up at the top (Exhibit A: women). While they’re careful to posit that the differences between men and women do not imply superiority, they are fond of research-summarizing dichotomies that can sometimes feel reductive: “It’s women who tend to focus on odds, and it’s men who focus on what they’ll win”; “women, on average, don’t jump in to competitions as easily as men do.” The authors’ instincts are in the right place; they want everyone to embrace competition—or to at least figure out how to make it work. But their simplifying style may do their own arguments a disservice.

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