The Best Books On The Animal Mind

Loretta Graziano Breuning Author Of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels
By Loretta Graziano Breuning

The Books I Picked & Why

Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes

By Franz DeWaal

Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes

Why this book?

This book started it all for me. I didn’t know about the social rivalry among animals, but when I read this, the world made sense. This long-term study of zoo chimps shows how hard our closest relatives work to raise their status in the troop. The reasons why they do it are explained in any textbook on Evolutionary Biology, but this book reads more like a soap opera. I also liked DeWaal’s next book, Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. It compares chimps to bonobos, a recently discovered ape with different lifestyle choices. After that, DeWaal started writing books that fit the romantic view of nature. It sounds like science, but it’s filtered to fit an ideology.


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Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World

By Dario Maestripieri

Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World

Why this book?

Macaque monkeys are machiavellian, get it? This is a proper academic survery of macaque social behavior in the wild. I was amazed to learn that social climbing behaviors is not just a chimp thing, and not just a male thing. Female monkeys are shameless social climbers, and this promotes the survival of their genes just like biologists tell us. Monkeys cooperate as well as compete, but they calculate when to cooperate and with whom. In short, they cooperate when it promotes their genes. When the calculating behavior of humans gets you down, it’s helpful to know how monkeys do the same thing. A similar book on a different species is Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind, by Cheney and Seyfarth. Yet another is The Lemurs' Legacy: The Evolution of Power, Sex, and Love. I studied one primate after another and kept seeing the same basic patterns, which are surprisingly similar to daily life among humans.


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The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations

By Robert Ardrey, Berdine Ardrey

The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations

Why this book?

Animals are picky about who they mate with. Biologists have explained a wide array of mating strategies, and this book is an “intimate” look at one of them: territoriality. This book gets down and dirty, as it were, to see how animals fight for turf and how it promotes their genes. It’s a great read - not a stuffy textbook - and it’s part of a series of 4 so you may want to keep going as I did.

Another older book that opened my eyes is The Human Side of Animals by Vance Packard. Together, these books showed me that it’s not just apes and monkeys that compete for status; it’s a staple feature of social animals. And if you want a real textbook on the subject, the best of them, after 50 years, is still E.O.Wilson.


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A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

By Robert M. Sapolsky

A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

Why this book?

This book tackles the subject from the perspective of the guy behind the binoculars watching animals in their natural habitat. It’s great reading, especially for me because I spent a year in Africa. Sapolsky is a noted neurobiologist, but this book blends the science with his “true life adventures.” The writer has a political agenda, however, which is increasingly manifest in his other books. Science-sounding information is filtered and spun far more than people realize.


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Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us about All Animals

By Karen Pryor

Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us about All Animals

Why this book?

Clicker training taught me that the mammal brain learns from whatever behavior gets rewarded. I first learned about it in the book Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched, and I even had the joy of participating myself as a zoo docent. But the method was developed by Karen Pryor, and her book Reaching the Animal Mind is a great introduction to the subject. An even more fun read is her book on how she developed the method, Lads Against the Wind. The title refers to an old term for dolphins. Karen taught dolphins to do amazingly complex feats by blowing a whistle when they displayed behavior that would earn a fish. The rest is history!


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