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Becoming Wild
Cover of Becoming Wild
Becoming Wild
How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace

A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2020

"In this superbly articulate cri de coeur, Safina gives us a new way of looking at the natural world that is radically different."
The Washington Post
New York Times bestselling author Carl Safina brings readers close to three non-human cultures—what they do, why they do it, and how life is for them.
A New York Times Notable Books of 2020
Some believe that culture is strictly a human phenomenon. But this book reveals cultures of other-than-human beings in some of Earth's remaining wild places. It shows how if you're a sperm whale, a scarlet macaw, or a chimpanzee, you too come to understand yourself as an individual within a particular community that does things in specific ways, that has traditions. Alongside genes, culture is a second form of inheritance, passed through generations as pools of learned knowledge. As situations change, social learning—culture—allows behaviors to adjust much faster than genes can adapt.
Becoming Wild brings readers into intimate proximity with various nonhuman individuals in their free-living communities. It presents a revelatory account of how animals function beyond our usual view. Safina shows that for non-humans and humans alike, culture comprises the answers to the question, "How do we live here?" It unites individuals within a group identity. But cultural groups often seek to avoid, or even be hostile toward, other factions. By showing that this is true across species, Safina illuminates why human cultural tensions remain maddeningly intractable despite the arbitrariness of many of our differences. Becoming Wild takes readers behind the curtain of life on Earth, to witness from a new vantage point the most world-saving of perceptions: how we are all connected.

A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2020

"In this superbly articulate cri de coeur, Safina gives us a new way of looking at the natural world that is radically different."
The Washington Post
New York Times bestselling author Carl Safina brings readers close to three non-human cultures—what they do, why they do it, and how life is for them.
A New York Times Notable Books of 2020
Some believe that culture is strictly a human phenomenon. But this book reveals cultures of other-than-human beings in some of Earth's remaining wild places. It shows how if you're a sperm whale, a scarlet macaw, or a chimpanzee, you too come to understand yourself as an individual within a particular community that does things in specific ways, that has traditions. Alongside genes, culture is a second form of inheritance, passed through generations as pools of learned knowledge. As situations change, social learning—culture—allows behaviors to adjust much faster than genes can adapt.
Becoming Wild brings readers into intimate proximity with various nonhuman individuals in their free-living communities. It presents a revelatory account of how animals function beyond our usual view. Safina shows that for non-humans and humans alike, culture comprises the answers to the question, "How do we live here?" It unites individuals within a group identity. But cultural groups often seek to avoid, or even be hostile toward, other factions. By showing that this is true across species, Safina illuminates why human cultural tensions remain maddeningly intractable despite the arbitrariness of many of our differences. Becoming Wild takes readers behind the curtain of life on Earth, to witness from a new vantage point the most world-saving of perceptions: how we are all connected.

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Awards-
About the Author-
  • Carl Safina's work has been recognized with MacArthur, Pew, and Guggenheim Fellowships, and his writing has won Orion, Lannan, and National Academies literary awards and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. He has a PhD in ecology from Rutgers University.

    Safina is the inaugural holder of the endowed chair for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University, where he co-chairs the steering committee of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and is founding president of the not-for-profit Safina Center. He hosted the 10-part PBS series Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina. His writing appears in The New York Times, National Geographic, Audubon, Orion, and other periodicals and on the Web at National Geographic News and Views, Huffington Post, and CNN.com.

    Carl's books include Voyage of the Turtle, Becoming Wild, and The View from Lazy Point.

Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    February 1, 2020
    Humans possess culture, but so do animals according to this compelling account of three nonhuman societies: sperm whales, scarlet macaws, and chimpanzees. Nature writer, activist, TV host, and founder of the Safina Center, the author notes that animals learn from their elders how to fit in, communicate, search for food, and identify friends and strangers. This is culture, and it's not inherited. "An individual receives genes only from its parents," writes the author, "but can receive culture from anyone and everyone in the social group...and because culture improves survival, culture can lead where genes must follow and adapt." During the 1950s, Navy personnel listening for Russian submarines were astonished to hear elaborate, beautiful songs that turned out to come from whales. As a result of the bestselling recording, "whales went from being ingredients of margarine in the 1960s to spiritual icons of the 1970s emerging environmental movement." Safina's lovely account of his travels with researchers studying sperm whales reveals a majestic, closely knit community. Turning to scarlet macaws, every one of which knows its friends and avoids macaws that don't belong, the author wonders what happens to a social organism after a few thousand generations. In traditional evolution, new species appear when isolation (due to a river, mountain range, etc.) allows the changes of Darwinian natural selection to spread throughout one group but not others. Don't animal cultures produce a similar reproductive isolation? In fact, cultural selection, although controversial, may act as another engine of evolution. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees, share 98% of our genes as well as many cultural traits, especially a fractious social system in which macho males compete for leadership with more violence than seems reasonable. Most books on natural history include pleas for preservation of the wild, and Safina's is no exception. Sadly, none of his subjects are thriving, and few readers will doubt that these magnificent creatures need urgent attention. Enthralling accounts of three animals that lead complex social lives and deserve to continue living.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    February 10, 2020
    Safina (Beyond Words), a science writer, proposes in his eloquent treatise that numerous species throughout the animal kingdom form complex societies in their interactions with each other. He focuses on three: sperm whales in the Caribbean, scarlet macaws in the Peruvian Amazon, and chimpanzees in Uganda. Having spent weeks in the field with researchers studying each species, he has plenty of examples of how culture, as well as biology, shape behavior. Sperm whales worldwide, for example, are “basically one genetic ‘stock,’ ” yet individual groups each manifest their own distinctive sonar clicks to communicate. He constantly demonstrates nonhuman animals’ capacity for activities often assumed to be solely the domain of Homo sapiens. While it’s well-known that many animals learn by observation, Safina points out examples of those that can actually teach complicated tasks—for instance, female chimps correcting their offspring’s nut-opening technique. The text, written in an accessible style, is rich in similarly fascinating zoological tidbits. This revelatory work sheds as much light on what it means to be human as it does on the nature of other species.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from March 1, 2020
    In his introduction to this involving, even addictive chronicle, award-winning and bestselling biologist and author Safina (Beyond Words, 2015) explains that even though culture has long been cast as a strictly human construct, he is here to illuminate animal cultures. All animal life exhibits culture, Safina explains; culture is truly universal. Layered on top of each individual's genetics, culture improves the survival rate of the group, enabling group learning and bestowing adaptability. Safina takes us deep into the cultures of three species, while sharing highlights from others to illustrate key points. How sperm whales embody the importance of family and friends becomes clear as Safina joins researchers studying the fluid nature of whale interactions, many of which are conducted over very long distances. Scarlet macaws demonstrate what another researcher said in an offhand remark: "Evolution is not just survival of the fittest, but survival of the beautiful," as it becomes obvious that the macaws choose beauty when selecting mates. And finally chimpanzees have in common with their human cousins a preference for peace in spite of a penchant for war. Safina writes with awe and wonder of what he observed and learned from the cultures of these remarkable animals, making us reconsider our sense of uniqueness.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

  • Library Journal

    April 1, 2020

    Humans have their own idea of what culture is, but animals have cultures too, says ecologist and conservationist Safina (nature and humanity, Stony Brook Univ.; Beyond Words). Culture is how humans and animals learn to survive, and culture adapts to change. Yet there is more to it, as Safina explores in his latest book, which is divided into three sections: Families, Beauty, and Peace. Families focuses on sperm whales, Beauty on macaws, and Peace on chimpanzees, although there is overlap on these subjects, and other animals and case studies are mentioned. Beauty is shorter in comparison, and at first, Peace seems ironic as much of it covers aggression and sex. Safina's frank conversations with experts and wonderfully descriptive writing from the field places readers right in the action. However, he also sometimes rephrases similar points and poses questions for thought, musing until readers lose an understanding of the initial thesis. VERDICT Though wide ranging at times, this work should interest fans of Safina and general readers seeking to learn more about animal behavior.--Elissa Cooper, Helen Plum Memorial Lib., Lombard, IL

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    November 1, 2019

    It's not just humans who build cultures, argues New York Times best-selling author Safina, also a MacArthur Fellow. Here he looks at the sperm whale, the scarlet macaw, and the chimpanzee to show how members of each species feel at home in a community. And that leads him to show us that we're not just a mashup of our genes; our culture is a second and significant heritage.

    Copyright 2019 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace
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