Carl Safina on the Thoughts and Feelings of the Other Animals

Carl Safina
I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear+Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Carl: One of the rules in the science of animal behavior is you’re not allowed to attribute human thoughts and emotions to other animals. But if an animal seems afraid, in a situation that’s dangerous to it, it’s probably feeling afraid, an old, old emotion that we inherited. People didn’t get our nervous system from Walmart. We inherited it. So, that means that a lot of the components of our nervous system and our abilities come from a place that a lot of other animals have gotten it from. We share it. And so, these kinds of ways of attributing thoughts and emotions to animals are probably exactly what’s going on.

That’s Carl Safina, whose love of nature has led him to a lifetime of studying the world we live in—a world from which we’ve become increasingly separated. Carl’s books bring us back to that world with beautiful writing. They often reflect on the other animals in the world—with a firm understanding that a lot of what we are we actually share with them.

Alan: 00:00:00 Carl, this is so great to be talking to you today because you have the answers to the questions that probably everyone of us has been asking since we were a kid and had a pet turtle or a pet dog or a pet hamster.
Carl: 00:00:15 Well, I don’t know if I have the answers, but I hope I have answers.
Alan: 00:00:19 Do they think? Do they feel? Now, your answer to that is, I think, definitely yes.
Carl: 00:00:26 They do think. They don’t think like us. They think like them. And, that’s true for people, too. Other people don’t think like you do, or like I do. We all think a little differently, and different species think differently.
Alan: 00:00:42 Yeah, of course. We humans have the tendency, when we come up against somebody who thinks differently to conclude that they don’t think at all.
Carl: 00:00:50 Yeah.
Alan: 00:00:51 We do that, too.
Carl: 00:00:52 We have belief systems. I’m not sure other animals have belief systems.
Alan: 00:00:57 Yeah, that sounds pretty advanced.
Carl: 00:00:58 That’s preconceived, conceptual notions. But, a lot of animals … I talk mostly about wild animals although I have dogs, and I have chickens, and we have a couple of other animals at home. They live very well in an extremely complicated world, and they have to know where they are. They have to know where what they need is. They have to know who they’re with, who their potential rivals, mates, enemies, allies-
Alan: 00:01:31 And, when those categories are fuzzy, or it’s not necessarily easy to tell how friendly a friendly other animal is, do you suppose there’s a process of weighing or weighting the considerations between dealing with one or another?
Carl: 00:01:54 I think with some animals, you can see them sizing each other up-
Alan: 00:01:59 Yeah, that’s what I mean.
Carl: 00:02:01 … or being tentative if they’re not sure. You can see that. You can see that with dogs at the beach. If you go to a place where the dogs can run off leash, usually, they will run right up to dogs they already know. An estranged dog … Sometimes they will stop … My dogs sometimes stop many yards from a strange dog, and they watch. They see if the tail starts wagging or what the body postures are. So, they are evaluating, and they know what they have to do. What they have to do is … Well, my dogs are not aggressive, so what they have to do is avoid aggressive dogs. If the dog is aggressive, what it has to do is start a fight. I mean, it knows its agenda.
Alan: 00:02:44 That’s great. What really interests me is, because you’re a scientist, I’m interested to know when you became convinced that dogs, think and have feelings … dogs or any animal.
Carl: 00:03:03 Well, okay. So, any animal … When we say animal, we tend to think of mammals and not humans.
Alan: 00:03:11 Right. I mean any other animal.
Carl: 00:03:12 Two things we have to keep in mind. Humans are animals, and animals is everything from sponges and corals to elephants and other mammals and birds, and things like that.
Alan: 00:03:25 Can’t animals be microscopic, like the one that survives anywhere? What do you call it?
Carl: 00:03:32 The tardigrades?
Alan: 00:03:32 Tardigrades. Yeah. I love the tardigrades.
Carl: 00:03:34 Yes. Those are definitely animals. So, when we think about thinking and behavior and things like that, we tend implicitly to be thinking about mammals and birds mostly, or vertebrates. Or, maybe if we’re very big minded, we might throw an octopus in there, which also have amazing minds.
Alan: 00:03:54 They’re very smart.
Carl: 00:03:56 Yes. And, our last common ancestor with them was about 700 million years ago, and that was a worm-like thing. And, their intelligence and their nervous system and their organization and their eight brains evolved very differently than the vertebrate nervous system that we have in common with all other mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish and amphibians. But, the octopus one is off by itself and separate. An astonishing thing about that is that’s the closest thing on earth to an alien being, a being with a mind that is not related organically to our mind. It’s related a little bit, 700 million years ago, but really, not much.
And, yet we recognize the twinkle in each others’ eyes. In aquariums, where they get to know their aquarium keepers, octopuses … They have a tendency to like certain people, not like other people. They recognize different people as well as apes recognize different people. They use tools. They are really, really amazing. So, with all that about octopuses, I totally lost your question.
Alan: 00:05:10 Well, while you’re on the subject of octopuses, you talked about them having eight brains. I mean, I was aware that their nervous system was very active down in their tentacles. And, I once said, just to somebody, “Their brains are all down their arms.”
Carl: 00:05:28 Yeah, that’s very true, actually. Yeah.
Alan: 00:05:29 So, that functions in a similar way to how our brains function, and they’re in their extremities?
Carl: 00:05:37 Well, basically, the extremities function with independent brains.
Alan: 00:05:43 Oh, I see. Yeah.
Carl: 00:05:44 And, what you can think of as their brain, the one thing is really eight distributed locations, but is also networked so that they can have what acts like one brain with us, where they focus their vision on something. They focus their attention on one thing. Either it’s to attack a crab or something they want for food, or to escape a predator or something like that. But, when they’re manipulating things, their arms basically can work totally independently, without referring to the other arms. But, if they need to coordinate, they can do that, too. It’s like playing jazz drums.
Alan: 00:06:24 So, here’s what I was trying to ask you before. With all of that in mind and with your background as a scientist, when did you actually become convinced that the other animals feel and think differently from us, but at all?
Carl: 00:06:39 Well, when I was a kid in Brooklyn, my father’s hobby was raising canaries. So, since the time I could first see and be aware of anything, I was able to see birds up very, very closely … inches away, getting on and off their eggs, feeding their babies and things like that. Many people who live in much wilder places out in the country don’t get to see animal behavior with that intimacy from before they can even remember, which is my case.
So, when I was seven years old, I graduated to having my own flock of homing pigeons. We had them in a coop in the backyard in Brooklyn, and when you raise homing pigeons, you have a stack of boxes. We used to use peach crates or apple crates. We’d stack them up, and then you would get a ceramic bowl, then put it in there for them to build their nest. And, you would provide a bunch of … We used to buy tobacco stems for them to make their nest out of. The interesting thing about why it was tobacco stems is the nicotine killed lice.
And then, we would just leave it, and they would decide who they were going to be married to, and they would squabble about their mates or their rivals. Then they would lay their eggs and take care of their little homes and their nests, and feed their babies, go out for the day, come back, feed their babies again. Because we used to let them out. They would fly around. Feed their babies again, and then they would go to sleep. And, right across the yard, we lived in a tenement, which was a stack of boxes where the people figured out who they were going to be mated to, took care of their nests, went out during the day, came back, fed their babies, and went to sleep.
Alan: 00:08:44 Yeah, but if we took you out of Brooklyn and took you to the Bronx, would you be able to find your way home the way the birds could?
Carl: 00:08:51 No. They had that over me. We used to take them to relatives’ houses, as far away as Connecticut and New Jersey for a joke. We would say, “Here’s the pigeon. You want to put a note on their leg, and we’ll let them go home, and later, we’ll find the note.”
Alan: 00:09:05 So, you didn’t have to take them a little bit further away each time? You could take them a long distance, and they’d find their way back?
Carl: 00:09:11 Yeah.
Alan: 00:09:12 I didn’t know how that worked.
Carl: 00:09:12 Yeah, we could do that. Yes.
Alan: 00:09:14 Wow. So, how did they do it? They used magnetism and GPS?
Carl: 00:09:18 They have a lot of different ways of orienting. They probably can sense magnetism. There some idea that they can actually see magnetic fields of the Earth. That’s not confirmed, but there’s some reason to believe that they might be able to do that. They orient to the sun. They use a lot of visual cues. So, around New York City, you take a pigeon in Brooklyn. It’s flying up and around. It can see Manhattan. It can see all that stuff. You take it over to New Jersey. It can still see Manhattan, and it could probably easily say, “Well, that’s a place I know. I live on the other side of that place, so I’m going to fly that way.”
But, usually, this is what they do. They fly big loops in the air several times, maybe three or four times. They call that getting their bearings. And then, they go in a straight line, and they go home.
Alan: 00:10:09 So, this sounds like a process of consciously figuring something out. It doesn’t sound like instinct.
Carl: 00:10:17 For them or for me?
Alan: 00:10:21 Well, for you, you’re trying to figure them out, but-
Carl: 00:10:23 I was trying to figure them out, but they see-
Alan: 00:10:24 Well, when they’re in Connecticut, and find a way back to New York, they’re using clues. It’s not some mysterious genetic thing drawing them to Brooklyn.
Carl: 00:10:34 Well, the mysterious genetic thing is what they’re equipped with. And then, as far as knowing where to go, that’s all learned. It’s learned on top of what they’re equipped with in the way that our ability to learn language is equipment that we have. But, what language we learn, we learn on top of the equipment. We’re not equipped from birth to learn Spanish or French or Russian. That depends on what we’re exposed to. But, we have the template to learn any human language.
Birds and many other animals, they have these templates about what they can learn. Homing pigeons and many other birds are extremely good at learning how to get back home. Homing pigeons are famous for it because they’re domestic birds that we use for that purpose, but there are many birds that travel thousands of miles a year, and the next year, they go right back to the exact same little territory that they had the year before, or several years before.
Alan: 00:11:34 So, when you began to develop as a kid, this awareness that they had many more abilities than a lot of us ascribed to them … Somewhere along the way, did you come up against the idea of anthropomorphism as-
Carl: 00:11:54 Yes, so somewhere along the way … So, then I went to learn about them in real school and college. I learned that everything I knew was wrong.
Alan: 00:12:02 Because it was anthropomorphic.
Carl: 00:12:04 Yes, basically. Because there were rules. Science is really not supposed to have rules. You’re supposed to go where the evidence leads, but the weakness in science is that it’s done by human beings, and human beings have weaknesses. So, one of the weaknesses of humans is they create rules. And, one of the rules in the science of animal behavior is you’re not allowed to attribute human thoughts and emotions to other animals.
In a way, it’s good to be cautious about that, but sometimes, that’s the best first guess. If an animal seems afraid, in a situation that’s dangerous to it, it’s probably feeling afraid, right? So, that’s a good first guess.
Alan: 00:12:50 Right.
Carl: 00:12:51 And, there’s nothing else that you can come up with that better fits the idea that a predator arrives, the animal runs away, than that it’s afraid. It’s motivated to run because of fear, an old, old emotion that we inherited. People didn’t get our nervous system from Walmart. We inherited it. So, that means that a lot of the components of our nervous system and our abilities come from a place that a lot of other animals have gotten it from. We share it organically-
Alan: 00:13:28 Some form of it, right?
Carl: 00:13:29 Yes, but the form … I mean, if you look at mammals, especially … Mammal nervous systems, they’re almost identical across all mammals. We have the same hormones that create mood and motivation in many, many, many kinds of animals, all the way down to some invertebrates have a lot of the same hormones we have in our brain. So, these things have been around for hundreds of millions of years, and a lot of animals that are pretty similar to us use them in identical ways. And, the logic of their behaviors shows that the best understanding of what they’re doing and thinking, whether they’re showing affection, or they’re showing curiosity, or they’re showing fear, or they’re showing aggression … These all fit the circumstances in ways that we understand implicitly.
If a family of elephants stops in the shade, and the little babies lie down and go to sleep for a few hours, and the adults are dozing, but they’re standing up, and they’re all facing outward, that’s because of exactly how we would make sense of that situation. It’s because it’s cooler in the shade. It’s a better place to stop. They let the babies go to sleep because the babies can be guarded, but they’re no help in defense. So, they get to go to sleep. The adults need to be vigilant, so they just doze, and they stand, and they stand facing outward. That makes perfect sense to us. It’s not like they get to the shade, and then they run back out in the sunshine and stand there. They don’t do that. They go where they’re comfortable, in the shade. So, these kinds of ways of attributing thoughts and emotions to animals are probably exactly what’s going on.
Other people may make mistakes sometimes, saying, “I’m sure the animal is thinking about what it would like to do tomorrow.” It probably isn’t thinking about what it would like to do tomorrow.
Alan: 00:15:28 Or, at least there’s no way to know. I would think it would be very hard to figure that out.
Carl: 00:15:34 It would be very hard to figure that out. Right.

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Alan: 00:15:37 One of the most startling things to me in your book, beyond words, which is about other animals and how they think and feel … was a picture of an elephant whose face gland … There’s some kind of a face gland that was streaming liquid. It looked like tears.
Carl: 00:16:00 Yes. Right. They have glands on their cheeks, on the side of their face.
Alan: 00:16:04 First of all, what’s the purpose of the gland?
Carl: 00:16:08 Well, it doesn’t seem to have any other purpose than to communicate emotions of high arousal. And, it probably also produces a scent that goes along with the liquid that flows out. I mean, in a way, you could say, “Well, isn’t that weird, to have a flowing gland right within a foot of your eyes and your mouth that streams a liquid that smells?” Well, we have armpits that do that.
Alan: 00:16:39 We also have eyes that tear.
Carl: 00:16:40 And, we also have eyes that tear, and tear also in moments of high arousal, whether it’s abject grief or-
Alan: 00:16:50 Or, you just won the US Open.
Carl: 00:16:54 Yes, tears of joy … These kinds of just … High intensity emotions trigger tears in people, and they seem to trigger these elephants’ facial glands to stream in that way.
Alan: 00:17:07 So, this elephant was a female who had just mated, and there were elephant females around her. I think you said they were encouraging her …
Carl: 00:17:20 Well, she was one of the younger adults of that family, and a male inbreeding condition had appeared, and she ran out. And, the male … They have this little courtship thing that they do, where the female runs, and the male runs after her. If he lays a trunk on her back, she stops. That’s the dance they do, and then they mate. After that, she came trotting back to the family. Her facial glands were streaming, and everybody was very excited. They were all sniffing her up and down. It was just a moment of high excitement.
Alan: 00:17:58 I didn’t know the preamble to the picture. I couldn’t tell if it was a rough moment for her to have gone through the mating process because-
Carl: 00:18:08 It was nothing rough or problematic about it that I observed at all. It seemed very smooth. It was totally voluntary on everybody’s part. It just seemed like everybody was excited by sex.
Alan: 00:18:25 I can understand that.
Carl: 00:18:26 Yes. Now you’re attributing elephant emotions to humans.
Alan: 00:18:31 Yeah, I’m elephant-amorphic.
Carl: 00:18:34 Yes.
Alan: 00:18:35 So, what were the females … How would you read that? The females gathering around the male. Was that female experiencing her first mating experience?
Carl: 00:18:49 I don’t know that. It’s possible, and it’s possible she wasn’t. I don’t know.
Alan: 00:18:54 But, the apparent emotion shown by this streaming face gland … That was very striking to me.
Carl: 00:19:04 Yeah, yeah. I mean, when we … What I sometimes say is everything you see in other animals … Well, everything you see in humans, there’s some version of it in other animals. You can often make loose analogies. So, we get very excited about other people’s personal lives and find that endlessly fascinating. The elephant version of that is they’re sniffing this female who’s just mated all up and down. They want to know who was that, and how was it, and how are you feeling about it? They get all this information in this way. And, she ran back to them, sort of happy. And, it was her family, so she was going to be with them, and they were all very excited. They wanted to gather all the information they could about it.

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Alan: 00:19:58 What that leads me to want to know from you is how much has been done to do controlled studies to try to ferret out the feelings and the thoughts that seem clear on the surface to us because they seem so much like what we go through? But, how can we apply scientific standards of experimentation to that?
Carl: 00:20:30 Well, there’s a couple of different ways. And, I should back up and say this rule about you can’t apply human thoughts and emotions to other animals. You’re not allowed to do that. This was a rule that was devised, something like 60 or 70 years ago, when people first started to try to study animal behavior. They said, “We can’t know what’s going on inside them, so since we can’t know, it’s not scientific to ask the question. We can just describe what they do.” So, the science of animal behavior was just describe what they do.
In the last 60 or 70 years, we’ve learned an awful lot about the nervous system, about neurobiology, which really didn’t exist then. We have machines that show brain waves. We have studies that haves shown what portions of the brain are involved in what behaviors with people, where when you’re asleep, you dream with certain brain activity is apparent when you’re dreaming. When you’re thinking, other parts of the brain light up with these machines that show activity in different parts of the brain. Other parts of the brains are more about instinctive responses, automatic responses. And, by studying those things in humans and in other animals, and the similarities of brains, you can also take other animals, and you can put them in the same machines, like electroencephalograms and MRIs and things like that.
For a while, it was that if you wanted to study animal behavior, you put them in a cage, you trained them to do something, you see what they do under certain circumstances … very, very artificial. You could learn some things by that. That had a lot of limitations also. I think all of these approaches have some of their own limitations, but people have more recently, just for example, they put dogs in MRIs. They train them to be in an MRI machine, and then they show them pictures of strangers. We don’t think dogs are visual because they don’t usually react to pictures in ways that we see. Show them pictures of strangers, nothing much happens in their brain. They see a picture of somebody they know and love, the part of their brain that lights up is the same part of our brain that lights up when we see pictures of people we know and love.
You can wire up a rat’s brain and wait for it to go to sleep, and watch the brain start to activate with the same kind of patterns that are the dream patterns that you see when human brains are dreaming.
Alan: 00:23:09 How can you tell a dream about Parmigiana-Reggiano, from a dream about Marilyn Monroe. That’s the hard thing.
Carl: 00:23:16 Well, that may be the hard thing. Right. But, when your dog is lying there, and they’re asleep, and their little paws are twitching, and they’re going woof woof woof woof woof woof-
Alan: 00:23:25 It’s Parmigiana.
Carl: 00:23:32 Yes, exactly.

Alan: 00:23:33 It sounded like an experiment that was done when you talked about crayfish … That sounded like a very deliberate attempt to see if the fish was going through feelings.
Carl: 00:23:50 Yeah. Well, capable of having an emotional life of some kind, I would say, is what they tried to do. So, crayfish are these little things. They’re like lobsters. They live in fresh water mostly, and if you put them in fish tanks, and you provide some cover, and you provide some food, they hide in the cover. And then, when they’re hungry, they come out, and they look for food.
If you give them a little electrical shock every time they try to come out and explore or look for food, they will start to act like analogous to a human who’s depressed and is feeling anxiety and is afraid to come out of their hiding place. So, they stop coming out of hiding. They shut down. They become a lot less active. They don’t do much. If you put in the water the same chemical that basically is the same drug that people take for relieving anxiety, the crayfish will relax and get active and come out and start exploring again. So, that seems to prove that they are capable of having an inner experience of emotions.
Alan: 00:25:01 First they have the brain chemistry of depression-
Carl: 00:25:04 Of moods.
Alan: 00:25:05 … and then they have the brain chemistry of relief.
Carl: 00:25:07 Right. So, I think the least you could say is that proves that they feel moods, and they have a mental experience to that extent. So, that, to me, is extremely interesting. And, there are many kinds of experiments like that, actually.
Alan: 00:25:25 The intelligence of birds seems surprisingly acute the more we learn about birds.
Carl: 00:25:38 Yeah. Acuity is the word I also use. A lot of birds leave the nest when they’re only about three or four weeks old, and within a day or two, they’re expert flyers. Their reflexes and their attention is just extremely quick and extremely sharp. Their visual resolution is very, very fine. They have incredible eyesight, and they’re just highly capacitated. And yet, their brains are physically quite small. But, their neurons are very small in those brains.
Alan: 00:26:19 Oh, so they pack more in?
Carl: 00:26:20 Yes. It’s sort of like going from a brain that’s full of vacuum tubes to one that’s working off transistors.
Alan: 00:26:32 You remind me of your saying in the book Beyond Words, that elephants’ brains develop more out after birth than they do before birth, which is very much like us.
Carl: 00:26:53 Very much like humans, yes.
Alan: 00:26:55 So, does that indicate that there’s some culture at work? Or, is it just the normal environment that they’re learning from?
Carl: 00:27:08 I wouldn’t say it indicates that there’s culture at work, but there is a lot of culture at work in elephants. There’s a lot that they learn over many years, so that’s one of the reasons that they don’t start breeding until they’re in their mid-teens or early twenties if they’re females, or around 30 if they’re males. There’s a lot they have to know and learn and experience before they’re really capable of parenthood. And, what culture is, is what you learn from a social group. It’s not what you learn by trial and error on your own, and it’s not what you get just from instinct alone. It’s what you learn from your social group.
So, a thing that elephants learn, which is why their families are led by older matriarchs … They have to learn where the last water and food is during really rough years of drought, when there’s no rain for a long time. That may be 10 or 20 years between such dire episodes, but they learn and remember by following their elders to the last remaining bits of water and food.
Alan: 00:28:29 So, that sounds like culture.
Carl: 00:28:31 That is culture. Yeah, that is definitely culture. Who they are friends with, the elephant families, are groups of females led by the oldest female. It’s usually her and her daughters and all their children. And then, the males, at adolescence, they leave, and they have a different kind of a life. First they travel around in groups with other males, and then they become more solitary. But, the females always stay together in these families. And, the families have certain other families that they particularly like. And, they’re just friends with them. They find them a lot. They hang near them a lot, or they mix with them a lot. And, others, they don’t like so much, and they don’t really hang around with.
It’s weird, just like a lot of our friendships are arbitrary. Some people, you just like, and other people, you don’t really hit it off with. You don’t really know why, a lot of the time. They seem to be like that, and often, what I saw was … You’d see a big group of elephants. You couldn’t tell who was who or what was what, but at dusk, they would start to pull away into their separate families, and separate families would go separate ways for where they like to spend the night. Then in the daytime, they would find their friends and mingle, and they’d go to where the water was or where the food was.

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Alan: 00:29:57 You know, as we talk, I’m wondering what this deeper knowledge of our cousins and the rest of the animal kingdom … What can we draw from that? What should we draw from that?
Carl: 00:30:16 Well, I think a way of looking at it, which is the way it seems to me … Imagine you showed up somewhere, and you didn’t know anybody. You had no idea who you were with, and in a way, our identity is formed by our relationship to some other people. That makes us who we are. And, on this planet, we really don’t know who we’re here with. It makes it hard for us to really know, really, who we are. But, we’re here with a lot of other creatures, who, they value their own lives. They have a very vivid experience of their own lives, and they know who they are. They know who they’re with.
I think we’re drawing ourselves farther and farther away from the rest of the living world, into an isolation of humans only. Whereas, for hundreds of thousands of years, tribal people lived in very close contact with nature, and they had a lot of respect for other creatures. They knew a lot about them, some of which they venerated or even worshiped for their superhuman abilities. A lot of Native American groups held the wolf is very high esteem because they were hunters, and the wolves were really good hunters. They recognized and revered that ability.
Or, the salmon would come back mysteriously at a certain time of year and would provide food without which, the people would not be able to survive a year. So, they would store up all these salmon for food for the rest of the year … and on and on. There are many examples of that. It let people understand who we were here with and respect the rest of the world, and we’ve become, I think, increasingly isolated. On the science side, we’ve never understood who we were here with better than we understand now because we have some very detailed studies of some other animals. And, they give us a lot of insight into how they conduct their lives and their capacities and how long they can remember individuals and their alliances, and all these kinds of things. That knowledge was probably never available to anyone before just the last few decades.
Alan: 00:32:44 So, that’s what I’m driving at with my question. If we have so much better understanding of who these other animals are, how does that change our behavior? For instance, with our fellow people, except in time of war, we usually don’t hunt one another, and it’s rare that we eat one another. And yet, is that going to change our behavior toward animals if it becomes so commonly understood as it is to you that they’re so much like us?
Carl: 00:33:20 Well, we dehumanize strange humans, right?
Alan: 00:33:25 Yeah.
Carl: 00:33:26 Which helps us to treat them not so well if it’s convenient for us. And, when we get to know other kinds of people, and we’re here in New York City, where there are a lot of other kinds of people. And, for the most part, we tend to have lots of friends and acquaintances who are from very different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different countries, different cultures. And, we appreciate that, and it enriches our lives. It helps us to just be friendly and peaceful and compassionate to other people. If we understood that this is exactly the way it is with other species, we would be more peaceful and compassionate. We would give them what they need, which is they just need room to exist.
They shouldn’t really need us, but now they do really need us. They need us to recognize that their existence now totally depends on us, and this, to me, is not a practical question for people. It’s not what do I get if we don’t let elephants go extinct, or some other little thing that seems a lot less significant than elephants … some kind of fish or a frog. What do we get out it? I’m willing to say that we get essentially nothing out of it, except that we’re here with these creatures that have also … They have the same right to be here as we do. I mean, they are of this world equally to us being of this world. A lot of them are from lineages that have been here for millions of years. It becomes a moral imperative for us to just let them exist.
Alan: 00:35:07 They don’t worry about that, though, do they?
Carl: 00:35:10 Well, they worry a lot about staying alive.
Alan: 00:35:12 But, they don’t worry about other species.
Carl: 00:35:14 They don’t worry about other species. I think that’s true. I think we’re the only ones that are capable of worrying about other species, but if you look at what we’re doing to other species, we don’t worry about them very much. I mean, a lot of species are declining. In this country, we have the Endangered Species Act, which is about 50 years old, and we’ve just seen the federal government come out with rules that are weakening the way that the Endangered Species Act is implemented, even though on a strictly moral basis, the Endangered Species Act is a federal law that said, “In our country, we don’t let species go extinct.” We don’t ask them, “What good are you to us?” We don’t ask them, “How much money are you worth?” We have a value system that says, “We have simply a moral imperative to not let species go extinct, and to come through the world without damaging it too much, and leave it at least as good as we found it.” That’s a moral thing.
And it’s not only a question of allowing other species to become extinct—we’re also not letting them to live the lives they were born to live while they’re still with us. Carl explains right after this break.
MIDROLL
This is Clear and Vivid, and now, back to my conversation with Carl Safina.
Alan: 00:36:21 Let me question you about that, because I think if it’s not questioned, it’s not really considered fully, deeply. If we worry about not letting any animal go extinct, are we interfering with a process by which many animals have gone extinct over the millennia, in the process of I guess what some people would call positive death or something like that, where something has to go away to be replaced by something else.
Carl: 00:37:08 Well, I don’t think there’s any real rule of nature that something has to go away to be replaced by anything else. In fact, things proliferate because they need to find a finer and finer niche. That’s often why you get different species. They exploit a finer niche. So, ecologically, I think my understanding would be you get more species, the more species you have.
But, the process of extinction … We’ve sped that up by about a thousand times compared to what it was before civilization, that we can see in the fossil record. Many things have gone extinct as the world has mostly slowly changed over a very, very, very long period of time. And, many things have not gone extinct, but have changed so much that the older forms are no longer with us. So, for instance, we’ve been talking a lot about elephants. We can talk about anything, but let’s just say elephants.
An elephant that is of the kind that we have today, the African elephant had an ancestor that was another kind of an elephant-like animal that did not go extinct. It changed over a long time into the modern African elephant. But, the old form doesn’t exist anymore because it morphed. It changed. So, in a way, there’s two kinds of extinctions. There’s the end of lineages. That has happened a lot. And, there’s just the morphing into the more modern forms. That has also happened a lot.
But, none of that has happened at the rate at which we’re simply killing off animal populations, shrinking the ranges of species, and causing species to go extinct. That, in recent times, in, let’s say, the last hundred years or so … certainly since the Industrial Revolution … That has sped up the process of animals getting wiped out by about a thousandfold, over what would be considered the normal, natural rate.
Alan: 00:39:15 It’s all tied together in some tangle that’s hard to disengage for me, because since we’ve been farming, we’ve been collecting animals … using them for meat, using them for dairy products. And, we’ve been poisoning the atmosphere with methane. I just read recently, which it is much more destructive to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Carl: 00:39:54 Yeah, a much more potent heat trapper. Right. That’s right.
Alan: 00:39:57 So, in this process that we’re proud of as the development of our species, farming and organizing ourselves to feed ourselves better, to have beer … very big advance. Which, I’m proud of as a member of the species. But, in the course of that, we’ve taken animals out of their natural free range atmosphere, and we’ve used them unknowingly, unwittingly, to hurt our own … the whole thing. The whole planet. So that we’re liable to go along with them.
So, when I add to that the idea that all animals seem to eat one another, are we supposed to, do you think … What’s your own personal thing? Are you a hunter or fisher? Do you eat meat? Do you eat fish?
Carl: 00:41:04 I catch fish, and I eat them. And, that’s a pretty big part of our diet at home. I don’t buy any meat from any farmed animals, and I don’t buy dairy products, either.
Alan: 00:41:21 What’s your reasoning?
Carl: 00:41:24 Well, twofold. One is that there’s a lot of predation in the wild. First of all, everything dies. You can’t stop any individual from dying. Everything dies. In the wild, there’s a lot of predation. A lot of things eat other things. Everything eats something. But, what they eat, what is the prey, gets to be who it’s supposed to be, until that moment when it’s caught by the hunter or the predator. With farming, the animals never get to be who they’re supposed to be. They live lives that are much worse and much more miserable than how they’re made to die. They’re made to live much worse than they’re made to die because the kinds of farms we have now are factories, and all of those animals are there to be killed.
The analogy to human behavior there is a very, very uncomfortable one. They’re basically concentration camps, and at that scale, I don’t want to be part of that. I’m not against humans killing an animal for food. I don’t think that’s the most bizarre thing in the world because a lot of things kill other animals to eat. But, to make them live that way is a bizarre thing.
Alan: 00:42:46 To me, it’s so complicated because when the wolves started to become extinct in a region of our country, they were brought back. And, one of the problems that I read in your book was that as the wolves became extinct, the elk got more numerous and were dying of hunger because-
Carl: 00:43:14 They ate all their own food.
Alan: 00:43:15 They ate all their food. And, the wolves came back, and they were no longer dying of hunger, but they were dying from being eaten by the wolves.
Carl: 00:43:22 Yeah. But, the fact is, the world can work that way. The world has had many millions of years to work out what works and what doesn’t work. These are balancing functions that are inherit in the living world. It’s been worked out over hundreds of millions of years. The wolves don’t just randomly go and mow down a patch of elk. They chase a herd of elk. Nine of 10 times, they can’t catch anything. Sometimes they come on one that is either old or injured or young, and that one is vulnerable, and they take that. Doing that enough, the elk have enough food. The elk generally get to live as elk are supposed to live. The wolves live as wolves are supposed to live. There can’t be too many wolves for how many elk there are because then the wolves don’t get enough food, and they don’t die, or they don’t reproduce as well.
Alan: 00:44:17 And, all of that was working for millions of years.
Carl: 00:44:22 For millions of years, yes.
Alan: 00:44:23 Until we got so smart that we not only invented farming, but we invented a way to mechanize farming. We invented ways to virtually exchange goods using money. And, the more the wolves were around to eat our animals, the more we didn’t like them, and we started mowing them down.
Carl: 00:44:54 Basically, the Westernized world, the civilized world that we as European descendants know … The Natives of the Americas actually not only revered the wolves, past tense, but they’ve brought several lawsuits to stop hunting and killing and culling wolves, because they just have a very different view of a wolf’s place on Earth and their relationship to wolves.
Alan: 00:45:22 Well, do you think we’re capable of achieving that view of wolves?
Carl: 00:45:27 Well, if I’m an example, we’re capable of it. But, if you look at the way this argument has been carried out over decades, one has to wonder. We were just talking about … This has worked for millions of years. The age of the world is something that we almost never think about. We think everything is here now, and a lot of the things that are here now are things that people have made. So, you see cars, and you see wolves, and you don’t really realize that cars have been here for a few decades, and people know absolutely everything about how to make a car. Wolves have been here for probably tens of millions of years, and we don’t understand a lot about them. But, we don’t tend to make that distinction.
One thing I read recently really blew my mind, which is a lot of people know that dinosaurs have been extinct for about 65 million years. That seems like a very long time. But, dinosaurs existed for well over a 100 million years. They’ve been extinct for a shorter time than they existed. I find that very informative … not only mind blowing, but very informative. These things are out of a very, very, very deep past. The birds that we see are literally those dinosaurs. Those few dinosaurs that didn’t go extinct and morphed and are with us today … We call those birds.
Alan: 00:47:07 So, in a way, they’re still around?
Carl: 00:47:09 In a way, they’re still around, and they were built over hundreds of millions of years. And, I just read a paper that said if we look at the rate of extinction, and we convert the rate of extinction into what is the loss of genetic diversity at the rate that we’re causing extinction … In other words, we can say we’re losing this many species a year, but if we said, “How many genes are we losing a year?” as another way of looking at the rate of extinction, and then we asked, “How long would it take for that amount of genes to re-evolve?” even though they would re-evolve in different life forms, but at the rate at which genes naturally evolve, the animals we’ve driven extinct in the last 100 years represent a degree of genetic loss that would take five million years to put back on Earth.
MIDROLL

Alan: 00:48:21 And, when you talk about the dinosaurs lasting more than a hundred million years, and in some ways, in their new form, still with us today … I’ve been told by people who have studied this that the average lifespan of a species is about two million years. I wonder if humans, people like us … modern humans, who, I don’t think you could say have even been around for more than a million years, I don’t think-
Carl: 00:48:59 Modern humans … No, only about 200,000 years.
Alan: 00:49:02 Yeah. So, do we have any hope of being average, in terms of the species lifespan?
Carl: 00:49:12 So hard to predict, but at the rate we’re going, we need to make a much better deal with the world and with ourselves, because the wheels are going to come off at this rate. We’re having a big, huge party right now, but it’s costing a lot to keep this party going, and we are damaging the life support systems of the world.
The reason that the extinction of species should alarm us is not because humans cannot live without chimpanzees or marsh rats or cottontail rabbits or robins. We could live without all of those things, but the decline and disappearance of these species shows that we’re poisoning the land, and we’re poisoning the air and the water, and we’re destroying the ability of the planet to support life. When that goes around, that will come around eventually. We’ll live in a very … At the rate that we’re going, with the rate of extinction a thousand times above normal, we will live in a very simplified, very depauporate … What I would call very, very lonely world.
And then, those systems that we really need … enough wood to keep us going. Enough water to keep us going. Systems that are already obviously stressed … They won’t be there. Even the argument over fossil fuels … People say, “Well, there’s so much oil.” I mean, the idea that we could run out of fossil fuels, nevermind climate change, which they’ll say, “I don’t believe in climate change.” But, of course, the climate is changing. But, a lot of people, obviously, don’t believe it or deny it. And, they’ll say, “There’s plenty of oil, and we need to use the oil.”
Well, 150 years ago, oil was running out on to the surface of the ground in Pennsylvania. That’s where people first realized that you could use oil and gas as a fuel … light lamps with it and things like that. And then, they started drilling and realized there’s a lot more of this stuff under the surface. Now all that surface oil is completely gone. The first oil wells in water were in water 12 feet deep in Louisiana. Now they’re in water a mile deep, and the oil is three miles below the sea floor. It’s four miles from the rig to the oil. If that doesn’t represent the depletion of the resource, you better pay attention. We’re running out of what supports this party.
Alan: 00:51:58 That’s what I’m worried about. Can we survive our own ingenuity? Because-
Carl: 00:52:04 That would take wisdom, and what we see is that people have no end of technological ability and cleverness and wizardry. We’re the master tinkerers. We’re unbelievably clever at coming up with new ways to do this or that. But, what’s the plan? What wisdom is guiding us? What are the goals? How are we supposed to live? Nobody agrees on any of this.
Alan: 00:52:31 And, that’s why, it seems to me, what we do know seems to be presenting us with a very important communication puzzle. Because so much of it seems counterintuitive. The idea that global warming, because of the greenhouse event, could cause ice sheets to melt and change or stop the warm water that flows-
Carl: 00:52:59 In the Gulf Stream. Yeah, for instance. Right.
Alan: 00:53:00 … in the Gulf Stream, that goes north, and then goes way south to the island and comes up along the coast again over the United States. If that stops, a scientist told me about 10 years ago, there could be an ice age in Europe. So, the idea that global warming could lead to snow is one so far from our everyday experience that we don’t think in those terms. We don’t talk about those things. The guy brought … I don’t know. It was in the Senate. He brought a snowball in and said, “What global warming?” It’s natural. It’s understandable to think in simplified terms like that, but we need to understand the complexity.
Carl: 00:53:48 Yeah. Well, well what scares me is it’s understandable within the limits of human intelligence, but if you’re going to just keep the technology ramping up faster, more … I mean, our whole plan seems to be faster, more. And, if that’s not guided by vision and wisdom and compassion, then faster, more tends to crash into something.
Alan: 00:54:13 But, that’s our culture.
Carl: 00:54:16 Yes, yes.
Alan: 00:54:16 We don’t live in a time when it’s reasonable to think we’re going to develop the Native Americans’ respect for the sacred life of the animal.
Carl: 00:54:26 I think it’s quite reasonable to think that we should have the respect for life on Earth. I mean, really, that’s the most important thing. This is the only living planet we know of, and there are astrobiologists, who devoted their entire careers to looking for any sign or signal of any life anywhere else in the universe, who are concluding that they don’t think there is any. Now, the chances of there being none are probably very small. There probably is some somewhere, but it’s at least incredibly rare. We’re on this miracle of a living planet. The most fundamental thing is to honor this miracle, and once that’s accomplished, to figure out what else we might like to do here.

MUSIC BRIDGE

Alan: 01:02:26 Your writing is extraordinary. I love to read what you write. It’s very personal. It’s vivid. It’s alive.
Carl: 01:02:34 Thank you. That’s very kind. I’ll take it.
Alan: 01:02:39 Why do you devote so much time to writing? Are you on a mission to accomplish something with the writing?
Carl: 01:02:48 Yes. I want to show everybody how beautiful and miraculous the world is. That’s really it. And, I want people to understand the challenges that humans are confronting the rest of life with. So, I used to say that my writing was about how the ocean is changing, and what those changes mean for wild life and people of the city. But, it has changed, and now, I would say that my writing is about the human relationship with the rest of life on Earth. That’s pretty big. But, we do live on this true miracle of a planet, and I just would love to share that with people. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to share that with people.
Alan: 01:03:41 You clearly write from a place of love toward what you write about. It’s not academic. It’s not abstract. I get the impression when you write about other animals, when you write about our environment, you’re in love with it. You’re writing a love letter.
Carl: 01:04:05 I am in love with it, and actually, in my little description of myself on Twitter … You know they have that thing on your profile there?
Alan: 01:04:13 Uh-huh (affirmative).
Carl: 01:04:14 It says something like ecologist in love with the living world. I’m a scientist. Ecology is my science discipline, but I don’t consider myself a science writer. I’m not writing about science. I’m writing in a way that is informed by science, what we’ve learned about the world, because science has helped us understand how really rich and counterintuitive and surprising the world is in so many ways, that we now understand so much better-
Alan: 01:04:51 That’s what I love about science. It not only gives us a handle on the world we live in. It’s beautiful and entertaining and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It puts us in touch with mysteries in a way that nothing else does that I know of.
Carl: 01:05:12 Yes, and the more you understand, the more beautiful and entertaining and mysterious everything gets. Just a few minutes ago, when I was sitting in the park across the street with my stepdaughter, we were noticing some sparrows in the bushes, and I saw a bird that I couldn’t quite identify. And, I’m a birder, so, of course, that bothered me that I couldn’t identify it. But, we both took out our phones. I had two bird guides on my phone, and I realized … It took a couple of minutes, but I was very proud of my stepdaughter because she’s not a birder, and it took her about the same amount of time it took me to narrow it to two species. The bird had disappeared. Then it came back. We got down to one species, and I realized that it was the fall plumage of a bird that I’m pretty familiar with in its spring and summer plumage. And, that discussion just let us see how many possibilities there were, that we narrowed it down at first to two, and then two became one.
So, if you just see there’s some little birds hopping around, that’s just one thing. If you realize all the different things it could be and which one it is, well then, that information and understanding just made the world explode in riches. That’s what it did. And, it was a delightful couple of minutes.
Alan: 01:06:45 The more you know, the more delightful it is.
Carl: 01:06:47 Yes, absolutely.
Alan: 01:06:48 And, the more questions you have to ask … That’s what I love. Every time a new discovery opens a door, it opens a door to a hundred more doors.
Carl: 01:06:57 Yes, we’re never going to run out of doors in the universe, I think.

Alan: 00:55:16 Good. I’m glad I prodded you to say that. That’s encouraging and inspiring.
Carl: 00:55:21 Good.
Alan: 00:55:22 We’re running out of time, so it was good to end on that note of hope.
Carl: 00:55:26 Well, thank you.
Alan: 00:55:28 We end our shows with seven quick questions.
Carl: 00:55:28 Uh oh.
Alan: 00:55:30 Are you game? They’re mild. They’re generally about communication.
Carl: 00:55:35 Okay.
Alan: 00:55:36 What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever tried to explain to someone?
Carl: 00:55:43 I think … Yeah, wow. That requires a lot of thinking because I’ve tried to explain a lot of things to a lot of people. But, I think that the most counterintuitive, really important thing to try to explain is ocean acidification.
Alan: 00:55:59 Why is that so hard?
Carl: 00:56:01 You can’t see it in any way. I mean, you can talk about climate change and say, “You can see these monster storms. You see that the average temperature is getting warmer. Here are the measurements,” and it’s obvious. But, ocean acidification is simply not something anybody experiences. And, it’s a bit of a misnomer because the ocean is still basic on the pH scale. It’s not acidic. It’s just getting less basic and more toward the acidic end. You have to explain all this stuff. It all gets in the way of understanding what’s going on. But, what’s going on is that the carbon dioxide from the burning that we do, when that carbon dioxide mixes with sea water, it creates carbonic acid. The lowering of the pH is causing a lot of stress and strain to a lot of very small living things that are the basis of all life in the ocean, and they are starting to cause coral and anything else with a shell to grow slower and thinner and weaker.
Alan: 00:57:10 Well, you just gave us a show there.
Carl: 00:57:12 Okay, good.
Alan: 00:57:13 We’ll watch for that.
Carl: 00:57:14 What’s question two?
Alan: 00:57:15 Question two is how do you handle a nosy person?
Carl: 00:57:19 How do I handle a nosy person?
Alan: 00:57:22 It’s a communications relating question. When somebody expresses nosiness towards your private life, how do you handle that?
Carl: 00:57:30 I don’t know I’ve ever had that problem. I tend to be pretty open. I’m not a very guarded person. What do you want to know about my private life? It’s none of your business.
Alan: 00:57:41 That’s good. How do you tell someone that they have their facts wrong?
Carl: 00:57:47 Gently and with compassion, usually. And, if that doesn’t work … I mean, there are people who are very set, and I would say it’s impossible to have a good conversation with. But, I don’t attack them and say, “You have your facts wrong.” I would say, “Well, the facts that I know … I read about this. I saw this. I observe this. I talked to these scientists. I spent three weeks in this place. This is what I know to be true.”
Alan: 00:58:22 I was in a taxi once, and the taxi driver was explaining to me that the world was 6,000 years old. And, I said, “Well, scientists have figured out with fossils and carbon dating that it’s a lot older than that,” and he said, “Scientists don’t know how to tell time very well.”
Carl: 00:58:39 That’s very funny.
Alan: 00:58:41 Okay. Next question. What’s the strangest question anyone’s ever asked you?
Carl: 00:58:48 Oh, boy. Oh, wow. Could I even remember what the strangest question anybody’s ever asked me … I don’t know. I can think of a funny thing somebody once asked me. I once took somebody out birding. It was the first time she ever went birding. She was very interested in birding. We were with a little group, and there was this woman. It was her first time. And, we went to Jamaica Bay, not very far from here. We’re sitting a little blind by the pond, and some quail came out. I said to her, “Look at the quail over there.” So, she looks with her binoculars, and she says, “Okay, quail. Wow. Quail. So, are those ducks, or are they birds?”
Alan: 00:59:45 And, you came up with a strange question. All right. Next one. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Carl: 00:59:54 I usually introduce somebody else and say I have to refill my drink.
Alan: 00:59:59 Oh, that’s good. Okay. A lot of people use alcohol as a way to get-
Carl: 01:00:04 It doesn’t have to be alcohol. It could be seltzer and lime or something.
Alan: 01:00:08 Right. How do you start up a real good conversation with someone who you don’t know at a dinner party?
Carl: 01:00:17 Usually, the best way to start a conversation is ask somebody about themselves.
Alan: 01:00:22 What would you say? You don’t know me. You sit down next to me. What would you ask me about myself?
Carl: 01:00:27 Well, the classic thing is what’s your sign, right?
Alan: 01:00:30 Yeah. When we went to California, they asked my wife [Arlene 01:00:35], “What’s your sign?” She said, “Star of David.”
Carl: 01:00:39 That’s good.
Alan: 01:00:41 So, what would you ask?
Carl: 01:00:41 Well, people are … We all want to know the commonalities, right? So, often, a good opener is just do you live nearby? Or, what interests you? I sometimes ask. It’s a twist on what do you do? I don’t really like that question, what do you do?
Alan: 01:01:00 Yeah, I feel the same way.
Carl: 01:01:01 But, I sometimes say, “What interests you?”
Alan: 01:01:04 Yeah. I ask them what their passion is. Similar. Okay. Last question. What gives you confidence?
Carl: 01:01:12 In what?
Alan: 01:01:13 Well, you pick it. Life … That’s an interested answer. What do you mean, in what? What went through your mind there?
Carl: 01:01:22 I think what … Well, you can be confident in tomorrow. You could be confident that we will find out way out of these problems. You could be confident in the next election.
Alan: 01:01:32 Oh, I see.
Carl: 01:01:32 You could be confident that I can deal with any problems, you know? It’s at different levels.
Alan: 01:01:36 Yeah.
Carl: 01:01:36 I’ll tell you what gives me comfort. What gives me comfort is that life on Earth is very old, and has been through an awful, awful, awful lot, and that gives me comfort.
Alan: 01:01:51 Well, you also have confidence because you had the confidence to give yourself your own question. Thank you, Carl. That was great.
Carl: 01:01:59 Thank you so much. This was really terrific.
Alan: 01:02:01 I really enjoyed it.
Carl: 01:02:02 Me, too.
Alan: 01:02:04 Do you want us to … yes?
Graham: 01:02:06 Could we have a word or two from Carl about his life as a writer?
Alan: 01:02:09 Oh, yes. Yeah, Graham. I don’t know. Did you hear Graham just now?
Carl: 01:02:13 Yes, I did. Yes.
Graham: 01:02:14 And, what are you trying to do to your writing. Do you have a philosophy behind your writing?
Carl: 01:02:21 Yes. I do.
Alan: 01:02:22 Well, let me get into that.
Carl: 01:02:24 Okay.
Alan: 01:02:26 Your writing is extraordinary. I love to read what you write. It’s very personal. It’s vivid. It’s alive.
Carl: 01:02:34 Thank you. That’s very kind. I’ll take it.
Alan: 01:02:39 Why do you devote so much time to writing? Are you on a mission to accomplish something with the writing?
Carl: 01:02:48 Yes. I want to show everybody how beautiful and miraculous the world is. That’s really it. And, I want people to understand the challenges that humans are confronting the rest of life with. So, I used to say that my writing was about how the ocean is changing, and what those changes mean for wild life and people of the city. But, it has changed, and now, I would say that my writing is about the human relationship with the rest of life on Earth. That’s pretty big. But, we do live on this true miracle of a planet, and I just would love to share that with people. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to share that with people.
Alan: 01:03:41 You clearly write from a place of love toward what you write about. It’s not academic. It’s not abstract. I get the impression when you write about other animals, when you write about our environment, you’re in love with it. You’re writing a love letter.
Carl: 01:04:05 I am in love with it, and actually, in my little description of myself on Twitter … You know they have that thing on your profile there?
Alan: 01:04:13 Uh-huh (affirmative).
Carl: 01:04:14 It says something like ecologist in love with the living world. I’m a scientist. Ecology is my science discipline, but I don’t consider myself a science writer. I’m not writing about science. I’m writing in a way that is informed by science, what we’ve learned about the world, because science has helped us understand how really rich and counterintuitive and surprising the world is in so many ways, that we now understand so much better-
Alan: 01:04:51 That’s what I love about science. It not only gives us a handle on the world we live in. It’s beautiful and entertaining and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It puts us in touch with mysteries in a way that nothing else does that I know of.
Carl: 01:05:12 Yes, and the more you understand, the more beautiful and entertaining and mysterious everything gets. Just a few minutes ago, when I was sitting in the park across the street with my stepdaughter, we were noticing some sparrows in the bushes, and I saw a bird that I couldn’t quite identify. And, I’m a birder, so, of course, that bothered me that I couldn’t identify it. But, we both took out our phones. I had two bird guides on my phone, and I realized … It took a couple of minutes, but I was very proud of my stepdaughter because she’s not a birder, and it took her about the same amount of time it took me to narrow it to two species. The bird had disappeared. Then it came back. We got down to one species, and I realized that it was the fall plumage of a bird that I’m pretty familiar with in its spring and summer plumage. And, that discussion just let us see how many possibilities there were, that we narrowed it down at first to two, and then two became one.
So, if you just see there’s some little birds hopping around, that’s just one thing. If you realize all the different things it could be and which one it is, well then, that information and understanding just made the world explode in riches. That’s what it did. And, it was a delightful couple of minutes.
Alan: 01:06:45 The more you know, the more delightful it is.
Carl: 01:06:47 Yes, absolutely.
Alan: 01:06:48 And, the more questions you have to ask … That’s what I love. Every time a new discovery opens a door, it opens a door to a hundred more doors.
Carl: 01:06:57 Yes, we’re never going to run out of doors in the universe, I think.

You have a wonderful Ted Talk, in which you raise the question that probably all of us who have ever had a dog has asked himself or herself. Does my dog really love me?
Carl: 01:08:50 And, the answer is yes.
Alan: 01:08:52 How do you know?
Carl: 01:08:55 Well-
Alan: 01:08:55 Because my dog smells me as much as he smells other people.
Carl: 01:08:59 Yeah. But, watch what they do. For instance, every morning, in our bedroom, a room where we have never fed the dogs anything or given them any kind of a treat of any kind, they hop on the bed a little after it starts getting light. They’re very polite. They don’t do it at night. They wait till it starts getting light. They hop on the bed, and they plop themselves right along our body. They want that proximity. They want that contact with us, and while we’re asleep and haven’t moved yet, they’re happy to just do that. We’re not even petting them. Not only not feeding them any treats. We’re not even petting them. They just want that bodily contact.
Then we have breakfast. Often, we go out on the deck to eat breakfast, if it’s the warm months. The dogs come out. They lie around near us. They like being near us. They like to follow us around. They’re happy in our presence. That is love. I mean, what else is love? Love is wanting to be with somebody. They clearly want to be with us.
Alan: 01:10:14 How do we know it’s not a version of the Stockholm Syndrome?
Carl: 01:10:20 Well, because they’re not being coerced at all, and there’s nothing that we’re doing to threaten them. Dogs, in many ways, are the people we aspire to being, and they have … Well, in our privileged lives, anyway, many of our dogs have lives that are really quite nice. They’re comfortable and secure and full of love and affection and appreciation. They respond exactly that way, but if anything, they give it better than they get it.
Alan: 01:10:51 I love those studies that indicate that when people and dogs regard each other for a while, looking each other in the eye, that the level of Oxycontin rises in both of them.
Carl: 01:11:07 Yeah. We’ve been friends for a very long time, and I think there’s been some co-evolution. Everybody knows that dogs evolved from wolves, to hanging around human camps and scavenging scraps and that kind of thing. And, eventually, they started to change into dogs, and we had these hunting partnerships, and they were guards, and they did a lot of important things for us. But, I think we co-evolved also, a little bit with our emotional responses to them. Because we respond to dogs in a way that we don’t respond to any other animals. A dog wags its tail, and it makes us feel happy. A cow wags its tail. It doesn’t make us feel particularly anything. I’ve watched a lot of animals do a lot of behavior, moving around a lot. That’s what I’ve done for a living for a long time. No other animal has a singular bodily movement that changes our mood the way a wagging tail on a dog changes our mood.
Alan: 01:12:10 I was just noticing yesterday … I view of a field with a horse in it, and it was running, it seemed, for its own pleasure. And, its tail was swishing. It made me feel good. I liked to look at that swishing tail, but it wasn’t a signal to me the way a dog’s tail is.
Carl: 01:12:32 Right. Right. Or, a response to you. Our dogs may be lying on the floor. One of them totally facing away, looking like they’re not paying attention to anything, and let’s say another comes over to me and I say, “Oh, aren’t you such a good girl.” And then, the one who’s facing away, who I thought was asleep, his tail will start wagging because knowing that we’re all good, and that we’re all loving each other and in a good mood makes everybody happy. I noticed a while ago … I think there’s no single thing in my life that makes me smile as frequently as stuff my dogs do. They’re just are great companions.
Alan: 01:13:18 Steve Strogatz, the mathematician who’s a friend, was on this show, and one of the seven questions asked was what do you wish you really understood, and he said, “My dog Murray.”
Carl: 01:13:31 That’s good. That’s a good … And Darwin said, “Whoever would understand a baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke.” So, to him understanding a baboon was worth more than all of philosophy.
Alan: 01:13:49 Well, I think you helped us reach a philosophical height here. Thank you.
Carl: 01:13:53 Great. Thank you so much.

END CREDITS
Carl Safina is the author of 7 books on ecology, the most recent of which is entitled: Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel. He’s also the author of the critically acclaimed, Song for the Blue Ocean, which was a groundbreaking work, helping to advance the conservation of wildlife and the environment, and to give a voice to nature.
To learn more about Carl and the important work being done at his Center at Stony Brook University, please visit: carlsafina.org