Introducing IFAW’s Speaker Series: Dr. Carl Safina

Dr. Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

Dr. Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel will be the first guest when IFAW launches a new Speaker Series on Tuesday, September 26th. In addition to a MacArthur, Pew and Guggenheim Fellow, Dr. Safina was named one of the 100 Most Notable Conservationists of the 20th Century by Audubon Magazine. His PBS show, Saving the Ocean, takes viewers around the world and introduces innovations in marine conservation.  

I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Safina in advance of his lecture.

Q: Carl, your seventh book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel is exceptional. Walk us through your creative process.

A: It takes a while for me to come up with a good framework for the things I want to talk about in a book. The hardest part is, What’s the story going to be? I try to articulate an idea and find three examples from the field. Then I go into the field in the company of the real experts in each specific area or species. I write that up. Then I go into the science literature to add what’s known to round out the topic. Easy. Except—it’s never easy.

Q: In the context of your research, what is the most surprising revelation you had about the similarities between humans and animals?

A: The similarities are very basic and easy to see. We all try hard to stay alive, find food, keep our babies safe. We know where we are in our home range, and know who our friends and enemies are. We all have ambitions for higher status. We are all aware that we are individuals (and don’t let the mirror-test people fool you; that’s a test for understanding reflection but it says zero about self awareness, which is essentially universal).

Q: What does this tell us about our place in the world and how should this knowledge inform our interactions with animals?

A: We lack perspective. We lack humility. We think the world was made for us. These are mistakes with catastrophic implications for other beings and for human beings. The thing I most came to appreciate when writing Beyond Words and thinking about all this for several years was: The staggering limitations of human intelligence. Our breathtaking inabilities of intellect and empathy coupled with the seemingly unlimited ability we have to tinker and devise is recipe for the many global problems we create and cannot fix, and centuries of passed-down hatreds and cultural and religious goulishness. It is costing much of the living world. It may eventually be a total cataclysm for life on Earth. And of our most vaunted achievements: arts, music, philosophy (such as it is; I’m not impressed) and so on, essentially zero of it helps one member of any other species ever, at all. They were all much better off without us except the usual list: cockroaches and bed bugs etc. As I said in my book, Swan Lake is a nice ballet but it hasn’t helped a single swan.

Q: Your field studies brought you to Amboseli National Park in Kenya where IFAW works daily to protect wildlife. What did you learn about elephant families during your time there?

A: I learned that in some ways it would be nicer to be an elephant than a human; they are better to and with one another. More devoted, more faithful, less violent. In some ways they seem better than us. I was deeply moved. I was also deeply and permanently disturbed by the killing for ivory and the wildlife crises going on.

Q: You'll be the lecturer at IFAW's inaugural Speaker Series later this month, what can your audience expect?

A: I will open some doors and windows on other minds that may blow in a breath of fresh air. And I will serve food for thought.

The Speaker Series will be held at IFAW’s International Operations Center in Yarmouthport, MA and open to the public. After a question-and-answer session, refreshments will be served and Dr. Safina will sign copies of his book.

We invite you to watch the live stream of Dr. Safina's lecture.

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