Minds like us

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Roy Wil­liams Ross Fitzger­ald

Dol­phins are even more ex­tra­or­di­nary. Their brain size rel­a­tive to body mass is sec­ond only to that of hu­mans and un­til 1.5 mil­lion years ago they were al­most cer­tainly the most in­tel­li­gent crea­tures on Earth. Mod­ern stud­ies show un­re­lated dol­phins co­op­er­ate and work in teams. (Much of the world’s cut­ting-edge re­search is done at Mon­key Mia in Western Aus­tralia.)

But sci­en­tists have not con­fined their at­ten­tions to lovable and ex­otic species. As Morell re­veals, a great deal of work has now been done on some de­cid­edly less pop­u­lar crea­tures, in­clud­ing rats, fish and ants.

It is a sign of the con­fi­dence he in­spired in the lo­cal com­mu­nity that Stan­ley re­ceived over­whelm­ingly help­ful and pos­i­tive re­sponses, which have been in­cor­po­rated into the fi­nal text.

It is fas­ci­nat­ing to dis­cover the var­ied hu­man re­sponses to this cat­a­strophic fire and the or­deals that in­evitably en­sued.

The sad re­al­ity is that on Satur­day, Fe­bru­ary 7, 2009, Melbourne’s tem­per­a­ture reached 46.4C — the hottest day in the 154 years since records be­gan. The pre­vi­ous high­est tem­per­a­ture had been 45.6C on Jan­uary 13, 1939: Black Fri­day.

This ex­treme tem­per­a­ture was cou­pled with winds that reached 90km/h and fanned the fire. This meant that within min­utes the un­stop­pable con­fla­gra­tion be­came the most

The re­sults are in­trigu­ing. Rats, it ap­pears, dream and play and laugh. Fish have mem­o­ries and in­di­vid­ual per­son­al­i­ties and learn by ob­ser­va­tion. So do ants!

What are the eth­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions? First, it is no longer pos­si­ble to draw a clear bright line be­tween the men­tal ca­pac­i­ties of hu­man be­ings and other crea­tures. The dif­fer­ences are ones of de­gree.

In­deed, Morell ar­gues the whole is­sue is pe­riph­eral: ‘‘ Given that we al­ready know that we live in a world of sen­tient be­ings, not one of stim­u­lus-re­sponse ma­chines, we need to ask, how should we treat th­ese other emo­tional, think­ing crea­tures?’’

In her re­cent Quar­terly Es­say, Us and Them, Anna Krien made much the same con­tention in de­nounc­ing such cruel prac­tices as live cat­tle ex­ports, harm­ful lab­o­ra­tory ex­per­i­ments on an­i­mals and hunt­ing for sport.

Yet the no­tion that hu­man be­ings are spe­cial is deeply in­grained in our con­scious­ness. It is a fun­da­men­tal tenet of the Abra­hamic re­li­gions that mankind was made in God’s im­age and with do­min­ion over the Earth. It is also a fun­da­men­tal tenet of mod­ern science (or was un­til re­cently) that the temp­ta­tion to an­thro­po­mor­phise must al­ways be re­sisted.

The lat­ter prin­ci­ple is known as Mor­gan’s Canon, af­ter the late-19-cen­tury psy­chol­o­gist who laid it down. Morell ar­gues Mor­gan’s Canon has be­come ob­so­lete in the light of the ev­i­dence, and she con­vinces me.

I would add that greater re­spect for an­i­mals is far from in­com­pat­i­ble with faith. Je­sus made it clear that while man is God’s high­est con­cern, we are far from his only con­cern. (See Luke 12:6-7.) St Fran­cis of As­sisi, I’d wa­ger, would not have been sur­prised by the rev­e­la­tions in this book.

in lethal fire his­tory.

Not only did the mag­ni­tude of the 2009 fire ex­ceed that of 1939, but while the Coun­try Fire Au­thor­ity had been help­ful with pre­vi­ous smaller bush­fires, it was un­able to re­spond ef­fec­tively to such a large-scale, cat­a­strophic blaze. To make mat­ters worse, on Black Satur­day when the bush­fire thun­dered to­wards Steels Creek, the CFA had not is­sued clear and timely warn­ings to those in its path. As Stan­ley poignantly puts it: ‘‘ In the event, the peo­ple of Steels Creek — like al­most ev­ery­one else in the area that burned on Black Satur­day — would face the fire largely on their own.’’

This fine book ben­e­fits greatly from a num­ber of ex­cel­lent maps drawn by Jennifer Shee­han. It is touch­ing to record that the names of the peo­ple who died at Steels Creek are now stitched into a quilt that is on dis­play at the newly ex­tended lo­cal com­mu­nity cen­tre, which opened in April last year. For the record, here are the 10: Charmian Ah­ern, Leigh Ah­ern, Jenny Bar­nett, John Bar­nett, Jae­son Her­mocilla, Me­la­nee Her­mocilla, Lynne James, Gail Leonard, Greg Leonard and Greg Lloyd.

Yet de­spite all the heartache caused by Black Satur­day, it is ex­tremely pleas­ing to know that in 2013 Steels Creek re­mains a gen­uinely in­volved, ac­tive and of­ten still hope­ful com­mu­nity.



Two ele­phants reach out to each other at a live­stock mar­ket in In­dia

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