“Beyond Words” by Carl Safina


Review by Andrew Kuharevicz

Beyond Words (nonfiction) is about those ideas and thought processes that take place without speech,


i.e. without words. This is the notion of “mind reading” in cognitive science, and it is applied to the animal world. We’re not talking about psychic abilities and science fiction, but rather, how we can tell how another person is feeling without talking to them. This is often called empathy, and in the science world it is called mind reading. Now, the author isn’t saying that animals have a human mind, instead arguing that we should try to understand the animal as its own being, such as the elephant mind, the wolf mind & the dolphin mind, and when we look at an animal, we should first ask the question “who are you?” If we do that, we can truly get into the mind of another creature separated from abstractions of our own human words, and after we do that, an objective scientific study can begin.

The author Carl Safina spent decades of research observing animals in the wild. In the opening pages he says the book is for those who truly listen to those we share this planet with, the animals that all too often get placed in the back of our human minds, secondary to what is important to us.

As you read you’ll discover that animals aren’t so different. Elephants for example, have been found to save humans when in danger, and on occasion even bury their own dead. Something we believe only humans are capable of doing. This book shows that what we think is so special about us, is shared with many social animals, making them not more like us, but the same as us.

Beyond Words is a beautifully written book that could be placed in an academic curriculum just as easily as it could be read by the mainstream book buyer. It’s one of those books that could prove to be eye opening to readers who don’t think of elephants as having the same type of individuality as humanity. The hope of this book (I believe) is to change our relationship with the animal world, giving more respect to the habitats we as humans brush aside in favor of our concerns and desires. This book shows that animals are the same when it comes to so many of the aspects we hold close to our hearts, and to what we believe separates us from them, another thing the author says we must realize is nothing but a socially created fabrication of truth. There is no us and them, we’re the same, and all animals, of the human and non-human variety, have evolved to love, show empathy, and without words, understand how other animals feel. The essence of consciousness goes beyond words. It’s not that humans aren’t special, we are, but animals are just as special as us. They have families, they dream and love and protect their children, and just because they don’t have armies and shopping malls doesn’t mean they don’t get afraid when they are hunted.

My only complaint is that the book is a bit too wordy, and the author seems to be saying the same thing over and over. Although sections differentiate by type of animals, such as elephants, wolves & whales, you keep reading the same conclusion, namely, that animals are conscious. But this is a science book, and science is about evidence, and that’s what Beyond Words is: it is a mountain of indisputable evidence proving that animals have a mind, something humans have, and something that goes far … beyond words.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, April 1.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, April 3 to discuss Beyond Words at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.