A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Survival of the Most Cooperative

Jonathan Balcombe talks about his new book: Second Nature – The Inner Lives of Animals.

A humpback whale is tangled up in the ropes of crab traps off the coast of San Francisco. A group of divers go to her rescue and manage to cut away the ropes that are wrapped round and round her tail, body and flippers. There’s even a line in her mouth. She’s tied in knots.

The divers set to work cutting the ropes one by one. They know that if the whale panics, or just can’t breathe – or anything – one flap of her tail could land them all in big trouble. But she doesn’t move. Rather than thrashing around, she stays entirely calm. One of the divers later notes that when he was cutting the line going through her mouth, “her eye was there winking at me, watching me.”

And when she’s finally free, the whale doesn’t just swim away; instead, she goes to each of the divers in turn and nuzzles them as a way of saying thank you. One of the divers calls it “an epic moment in my life.” He says he could see that the whale understood that he was there to help.

Gratitude, says Jonathan Balcombe in his new book, Second Nature, is one of the emotions we recognize as being supremely human. Except it isn’t. It’s not remotely limited to us humans.

Intelligence … emotions … morality … sensitivity and empathy – in different ways these are common to all animals. All of them.

In his previous book, Pleasurable Kingdom, Balcombe explored the lives of our fellow animals in terms of the pursuit of pleasure. We’re not the only species that’s involved in the pursuit of happiness. Indeed, he suggested, life is much more about survival of the happiest than survival of the fittest.

Now, in Second Nature, he delves into other elements of their nature, and asserts that we’re in the middle of a revolution in how we see the animals and our relationship to them.

“They experience grief and joy,” he explained during a phone interview. “And why wouldn’t they?”

Balcombe demolishes the idea that we and the other animals are all involved in a so-called “Darwinian” struggle to survive at the expense of others. Life is all about cooperation.

Just for starters, you and I may think of ourselves as individuals, but each of us is more like a complex society of organisms, working together to make up what I think of as “me”.

“Some 90 percent of all the cells in your body are bacteria,” says Balcombe, “and they’re mostly good guys.” In fact, we couldn’t survive without them. “They live together with us, helping us, for example, to assimilate our food as they feed themselves.”

Another example would be a coral reef, which he calls “a megalopolis of cooperating organisms.” Around the reef, big predatory fish will literally line up for a chance to be nibbled by smaller fish, whom they could gobble up in an instant, but whom they rely on to keep them clean by picking parasites from their skin. For the small fish, it’s a meal; for the big predators, it’s a spa treatment.

We need to understand all this, Balcombe says, because we humans have lost track of our true nature. Most of us have forgotten that we’re just one of millions of species all dependent on each other if we’re to survive and thrive.

So it’s time, for example, to stop getting all upset about the fact that a few people each year (maybe 10 at most) are killed by sharks, while we humans are killing up to 73 million sharks a year.

Balcombe talks about going on a safari in South Africa and being told by the guide that the boat portion of the trip has to be canceled because there are “angry hippos” out there. Hippos, according to the guide, kill more people than any other African mammal. But that’s not true. The African mammal that kills the most humans is the human. In the Rwandan genocide of 1994, angry humans were killing up to 10,000 of their own kind every day. There are no official estimates, meanwhile, of how many humans are being killed by hippos. But only about 800 hippos remain in the Virunga National Park, down from 29,000 in the mid-1970s.

This may all come across as a grim picture, but Balcombe is optimistic. He says that while physical evolution moves slowly, cultural evolution can move very fast. Only two centuries ago, the slave trade was in full swing. Colonialism has all but died out since the end of World War II. The oppression of women and children is headed for the dust heap of history. The next great social advance for humankind, he says, is the establishment of basic freedoms for sentient animals.

“There are no great differences between us humans and the other animals when it comes to intelligence, emotion and the like.”
Jonathan Balcombe

How can any of us play a meaningful role in making this happen? Very simply, says Balcombe, the one thing we can all do is stop buying animal products. Go vegan. “Going vegan,” he argues, “is the holy grail of personal activism for animals. Any decrease in the amount of meat eaten is to the good.”

The meat industry is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all cars, planes and the rest of the transportation industry combined. And while most of us have heard that cruelty to animals goes hand in hand with cruelty to other humans, Balcombe points out that this applies to entire societies, too. An extensive analysis of 581 American counties with and without slaughterhouses found that slaughterhouse employment increases the arrest rates for violent crimes.

“If we heard of an alien civilization,” her writes, “that takes babies away from their mothers, eats the babies and consumers the mother’s milk, we would probably not want to meet them.” But that’s the dairy industry. And Balcombe’s description of this, coming toward the end of his book, is especially poignant in that we have by now learned that cows, like so many other animals, suffer grief at the loss of a baby.

Balcombe suggests that two things will help turn the tide and lead us into our “second nature”. One is the growing knowledge that there are no great differences between us humans and the other animals when it comes to intelligence, emotion and the like. The other is that we’re beginning to realize that we just can’t go on the way we are. Climate change, he believes, may be a blessing in disguise, forcing us to a new relationship with the animals and nature.

The big question now is whether we can make the change before it’s too late.