The Social Lives of Animals by Ashley Ward review – be more bat

From to self-isolating bees to bonding baboons, lessons on cooperation from the animal world

Vampire bats “have each other’s backs”, according to one of the extraordinary stories in this fascinating book. Should one bat be hungry, a roost mate will regurgitate a nutritious meal of semi-digested blood to help it live to bite another day. In a similar display of apparent altruism, a bee with a parasite will isolate itself rather than infect the rest of the colony – a Captain Oates-like sacrifice on the bee’s part. And, say what you like about rats; in experiments they will open a door to let a cold, wet stranger into their cosy nests.

“We can trace direct and important parallels between our own societies and those of the animals with whom we share the planet,” writes Ashley Ward, a professor in animal behaviour. “By understanding animals on their own terms, we can understand ourselves so much the better.” Actually, he draws very few explicit connections between animal behaviour and our own, and is cautious about ascribing emotions or motivations to the creatures he studies – even in tear-jerking anecdotes about how elephants and wolves appear to mourn. But it’s hard not to take from some of his stories the idea that humans could learn a lot from social animals, for all our massive brains and our ability to pass knowledge down generations. “Our instinct for co-operation has provided the foundation for human civilisation,” he points out. We need that now more than ever.

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