BOOKS: Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2010:

Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals
by Jonathan Balcombe
Palgrave MacMillan (175 5th Ave., New York, NY 10010),
2010. 242 pages, hardcover. $27.00.

Jonathan Balcombe, in Second Nature: The Inner Lives of
Animals, wrote the book that the long forgotten Royal Dixon tried to
write in The Human Side of Animals 90 years earlier.
Structurally, Second Nature and The Human Side of Animals are
so similar as to seem to have been written from the same outline.
This may be because any examination of animal sensitivity,
intelligence, emotions, awareness, communication, sociability,
and “virtue” might logically progress from looking at how animals
perceive the world and each other, to how they use their perceptions.

The major difference is that Balcombe has the advantage of
being able to cite almost another whole century’s worth of scientific
findings in support of his case, especially in an extensive
discussion of behavior that indicates animal altruism and a sense of
fair play. Dixon had a scientific education, and styled himself a
scientist, but in his time few peer-reviewed studies existed of
animal behavior, and much of the scientific community vehemently
insisted that animals are essentially instinct-driven automatons, in
order to excuse and defend vivisection. Thus Dixon often fell back
upon anecdote, albeit with a preference for anecdotes offered by
well-respected scientific observers, to make points that Balcombe
makes by citing peer-reviewed studies.
The parallels between Second Nature and The Human Side of
Animals are incidental. Balcombe shows no sign of having ever heard
of Dixon, at least before ANIMAL PEOPLE extensively examined his
life and works in October 2009. Though the entire animal rights
movement might have been kindled by Dixon’s work, it wasn’t.
Espousing goals and a philosophy that were at least 50 years ahead of
their time, Dixon cofounded the short-lived First Church of Animal
Rights in New York City three years after publishing The Human Side
of Animals. The First Church of Animal Rights made a flamboyant and
well-publicized debut, endorsed by celebrities, but failed within
just a few weeks. Dixon thereafter lapsed into obscurity, spending
most of 60 years as an itinerant lecturer.
Balcombe has now been involved in animal advocacy, often as
an itinerant lecturer, for more than 20 years, working for the
Humane Society of the U.S. and more recently for the Physicians
Committee for Responsible Medicine. He became widely recognized in
2006, after publication of Pleasurable Kingdom, a pioneering look
at animal play. Second Nature builds to some extent on Pleasurable
Kingdom, but examines the whole spectrum of animal activity.
Like Dixon, Balcombe explains that what are usually believed
to be unique human attributes are actually evolutionary adaptations
of behavior shared by many and perhaps most animal species, even
some of the most primitive. Also like Dixon, Balcombe segues from
discussing animal behavior and appeals on behalf of individual
animals’ rights into an appeal on behalf of species conservation.
Writing relatively close to the beginnings of conservation
funded by hunting license fees, before the idea had actually been
enacted into law in more than a handful of states, Dixon did not
anticipate that conserving species might clash with respecting the
lives and welfare of individual animals. Balcombe wrote Second
Nature more than 70 years after species conservation came to be
co-opted by “hunter/conservationists,” whose chief interest was and
is in producing abundant “game,” and about 30 years after killing
wild predators to encourage “game” species morphed into killing any
“non-native” species as well, to try to prevent habitat
transformation through species competition.
Balcombe rejects this approach, which is in essence trying
to prevent evolution. “We may sympathize with efforts to secure the
protection of endangered species,” says Balcombe, “but doing so
at the expense of other animals is misguided and hypocritical when we
continue to threaten the endangered species through our own
Balcombe goes on to describe many examples in which animals
are massacred in the name of conserving rare species, while little
or nothing is done to prevent the human activity that puts the rare
species in jeopardy.
Unfortunately, toward the end of more than 200 pages of
critically reappraising commonly held but erroneous dogmas about
animals, Balcombe accepts completely uncritically the oft voiced
claim that the earth is experiencing an “extinction crisis.” Indeed,
as Royal Dixon knew and explained, species whose habits or habitat
needs conflict with those of humans are often pushed to the brink of
extinction. Some have documentedly gone extinct. Yet the numbers of
species existing in almost every habitat are equally documentedly
much greater now than when they were first catalogued, when Dixon as
an employee of the Field Museum in Chicago was among the taxonomic
What is actually occurring is a vast reshuffling of the
relative abundance and breadth of distribution of species, as humans
move organisms around both deliberately and accidentally. The
killing in the name of conservation that Balcombe deplores is often
rationalized as an urgent response to a crisis, when in truth it is
nothing more than scapegoating an adaptive species for habitat
changes that only humans could introduce.

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