Becoming Wild During a Pandemic

Photo by Carl Safiina

In a time of unprecedented pandemic, it’s reassuring to remember that many creatures are going about life as they have, that there is normalcy and peace, as always, in the living world. As Carl Safina remarks, the deeper you look, the truer that feels.

Carl Safina is an ecologist and a MacArthur Fellow. He holds the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and is founder of the not-for-profit Safina Center. He is author of numerous books on the human relationship with the rest of the living world.

We caught up with Safina for a few questions about his latest work, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, and its relationship to the current crisis. We’ve included an excerpt below.


Your previous book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (2015), changed so much of how people perceive the inner lives of animals. Connect the dots for us between your previous work and your newest book, Becoming Wild.  

Beyond Words is about what other animals—other than humans—think and feel. It’s about the range of capacities for thought and emotion in the living world. It shows that capabilities for emotions, mental experience, self-recognition, empathy, intelligence, communication, and a desire to live are common, to degrees that vary, throughout animals.

Becoming Wild goes deeper. It’s about how animals become who they were born to be, by learning, from others in their social group, the answers to “how do we live here?” That’s what culture does; it provides answers to that question. How do we recognize and find food and avoid danger? Where do we go? How do we recognize and respond to elders, navigate social frictions, and reconcile after dust-ups?

The stories in Becoming Wild are all about animal cultures. Many animals must learn, from their elders, how to be who they were born to be. Culture has largely remained a hidden part of wild lives. We inherit genes, but we also inherit culture. And that is true for quite a few other animals. Skills, preferences, songs, tools, and dialects; many young animals simply learn these from the adults around them. As they become parents and elders, the knowledge is passed along. Culture can evolve more flexibly than genetic mutation and the slow spread of genes. And because culture aids survival, it can put pressure on genes to catch up and adapt to new cultural ways of doing things. 

A surprising number of animals rely on learning the answers from others in their social group. They include various mammals, birds, fishes; even some insects learn things socially. The similarities between human and other species’ cultures are surprising.

What would you say is your through-line, that invisible thread of inquiry you’ve been following your entire career?

I’m a person deeply affected by the wonder and beauty of life on Earth, so my main questions are: Who are we here, within the journey of existence? What is life like, not just for other people, but for all other beings living with us? What do they do, and why, and how? How do they experience life? What matters to them, and how do they experience meaning in their particular ways? How does life vary from individual to individual within a species?

Life in broad strokes is quite similar for many: stay alive, find food, keep your babies alive. In that sense we are all the same. But we are all the same in very different ways.

What’s one takeaway you’d recommend for re-engaging with the wild world, post-pandemic?  

First, there’s a very serious side to considering the world post-pandemic. As I recently wrote, this disruptive pandemic is merely a gentle wake-up call; we cannot afford to hit snooze. Markets that bring wild animals into new, persistent proximity with other animals that they would not normally be jammed up against—and with humans they would not normally be in intimate contact with—have been the sources of several near-misses with sudden epidemics that were much more deadly than COVID-19 but, luckily, did not scale into pandemics.

Factory farms that are ever-more intensive, ever-larger have proven to be incubators of new strains of viruses that have found ways to exploit the tremendous opportunity that 7 billion humans being represent. SARS, MERS, Marburg, Ebola, HIV-AIDS, swine flu, bird flu—three-quarters of newly emerging infectious diseases erupt through our broken relationship with nature and our brutality to farmed creatures. And the pace of their emergences is accelerating.


What is life like, not just for other people, but for all other beings living with us?


There will be new diseases. Their emergence and disruptive chaos could become a chronic challenge to the most basic human thing: our ability to function socially. While there are silver linings in all the reduced activity, it’s only silver if it’s temporary and we learn something. What’s at risk isn’t just the excesses we could do without. What’s at risk includes very fundamental aspects of being human: being able to visit family members, properly grieving lost loved ones, playing or gathering with friends for meals.

We must act decisively against the self-inflicting causes of these emerging diseases. Wildlife markets need to be permanently closed and pursued aggressively when they go underground. Factory farms must be radically disaggregated into much smaller farms for a world that must learn to eat far less meat.

As we re-emerge post-pandemic, I hope we can maintain some newly re-learned habits of slowing pace, watching more closely, and finding great interest and peace in the changes and movements that living things constantly show us. I hope we seize this opportunity to see better, to enjoy, to learn from more of the world that lives close-by. There are other kinds of lives carrying on around us, passing along their cultures parallel to ours, and I feel a great beauty and great mystery in that.



Photo by Carl Safina


Being Better Apes
An excerpt adapted from Becoming Wild

This morning, Ben—the alpha—is not with the first group of chimps we’ve found. So Macallan, age 20, tries a bit of male display, dragging stuff around. But he’s entirely silent. He wants to impress onlookers—without summoning Ben’s rage.

And Lafroig, five years younger, begins displaying too, being very careful to make a show of himself while avoiding confronting Macallan directly.

This is the slow, years-long boil of chimp ambitions.

Their performances agitate the females. One screams, bringing Ben suddenly barreling in, letting everyone know who’s boss. Now Macallan is streaking across the ground at top speed with Ben in hot pursuit. Macallan’s wails are audible for the next hundred yards.

Everyone is screaming, running up tree-trunks. Large males who were playing peacefully with babies abruptly chase off the screaming little ones. Mothers begin defending and collecting their kids. It’s chaos.

Ben comes running back, demonstrating authority in all directions, hooting, jumping trunk to trunk, shaking branches—.

His performance creates more fleeing and shrieking. And what started it? Macallan had simply displayed.

It’s easy to say, ‘that’s all it was.’ But to them it’s a big deal. To the males, it’s their whole deal.

To be honest, it’s all getting on my nerves. The males’ demands for acknowledgment of rank, the intimidated screaming and submissive grunting; the young and the females caught in cross-firing ambitions and in the obsessive insecurities of high-status males—. It’s wearing thin on me. It doesn’t just waste everyone’s time; it’s oppressive.

“They make their lives much more unpleasant than necessary,” I venture.

“Yeah,” sighs Cat Hobaiter, who has devoted her life to studying the chimpanzees of Uganda’s Budongo Forest.

Virtually all the problems chimps create for themselves are caused by male aggression driven by male obsession with male status. Caught in a social web of ambition, forced respect, coercion, inter-group conflict, and episodic violence within their own community, chimps are their own worst enemies.

Quite simply, it’s too familiar. It’s apparent in many ways that chimps are our close relatives. Chimp male status is gained, lost, and enforced through threats and violence. With chimps as with humans, male passions don’t just waste everyone’s time; they waste potential for better-quality time. It’s the testosterone talking.

About six million years ago our common ancestor hit a fork in the tree. What would become Pan—chimpanzees and bonobos—and what would become Homo began separate trajectories. Various Homo species—differing species of humans—evolved and flourished. (Bonobos are superficially similar to chimpanzees but separate species whose ancestors split around two million years ago. Their range, far smaller, does not overlap with chimpanzees.) Gorillas had begun their journey much earlier, about ten million years ago; orangutans, roughly fifteen. Our species, Homo sapiens—not gorillas—is the closest living relative of the modern chimpanzee and bonobo.

Human sensibilities resonate with chimpanzees’ behavior because our evolutionary history is almost entirely shared. Human and chimpanzee DNA is about 98 percent similar. Chimps horrify and delight us because we recognize parts of ourselves. So much of what is uncomfortable for us in watching chimps is their excruciating similarity to us.



Photo by Carl Safina


Chimpanzees and bonobos share more than 99 percent of their DNA. Yet socially, they differ fundamentally. In chimpanzees the most dominant individual is always male. In bonobo society, the highest-ranking individual is always a female. Chimpanzee males form alliances to win aggressive, often violent contests for dominance. Bonobo females form alliances to keep male aggression in check, preempting violence. Among bonobos fighting is rare; murder is unheard of. Bonobo females achieve status as they simply age into high rank through seniority. Chimpanzee males use violence to entitle themselves to sex; bonobo females use sex to deter violence. Chimpanzees resolve sexual conflict with power. Bonobos resolve power conflicts with sex. Chimpanzees limit sex to one posture and mainly one function; bonobos never saw genitals they didn’t like. Bonobos welcome and frolic with strangers, flirt rather than hurt, make love not war. In experiments, bonobos unlock doors to eat with strangers, even when it means being outnumbered by members of another group. No chimp would ever do that; chimpanzees fear and attack strangers. Bonobos will even let a stranger get into a food-filled room that they themselves cannot get into. In order to win in chimpanzee society, someone must lose. Violence within the community is a defining quirk of chimp life. Humans share that kink. The difference between chimpanzees and bonobos is like the difference between sports teams and musical groups; in one system someone loses; in the other everybody wins. Why can’t chimpanzees just be nice? Why can’t we? Because we’re not bonobos. And that’s just bad luck; we are as closely related to bonobos as to chimpanzees.

The bonobos’ emphasis on creating and maintaining the peace in bonobo society surpasses both chimpanzees’ and humans’. In the bonobo brain, the areas that perceive distress in other individuals and those that dampen aggressive impulses are enlarged. “The bonobo may well have the most empathic brain of all hominids, including us,” writes Frans de Waal. Bonobos have been said to have a threefold path to peace: little violence among males, between sexes, and among communities. The only person who has studied both free-living chimps and bonobos, Takeshi Furuichi, has noted that, “With bonobos everything is peaceful,” he has said. “When I see bonobos, they seem to be enjoying their lives.”  

Bonobo power is female; and dominance by females makes the difference for bonobos, because female dominance differs from male dominance. Female bonobos use their power to maintain peace.

Compared to bonobos, gorillas, and orangs, we humans are more socially aggressive, more violent, more political, more prone to escalation. We aren’t “like apes.” We are like chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are obsessed with status and oppressive dominance within their group; we are obsessed with status and oppressive dominance within our group. A male chimpanzee might turn on their friends and beat their mates. A human male might turn on their friends and beat their mates. Having males that frequently create lethal violence within our own communities makes chimpanzees and humans unusual among group-living animals. Chimpanzees and humans are stuck dealing with familiar males as dangerous. Chimpanzees don’t create a safe space; they create a stressful, tension-bound, politically encumbered social world for themselves to inhabit. As do we. This behavioral package exists only in chimpanzees and humans.



Carl Safina and Cat Hobaiter. Photo by Kizza Vincent.


Why—for chimps and for us—must this be so hard? All the other apes, plus elephants and wolves, orca and sperm whales, lemurs, hyenas; they seem to have found a better path. Their status comes with maturity; no violence is involved, no elder gets deposed. Individuals ascend to leadership with the wisdom of age, because their knowledge is valuable. Their female-led societies emphasize social support. Those other species show us all that there are different, better, less stressful, less obsessive-compulsive ways to earn leadership and keep groups cohesive. Even this male stressed chimpanzee population that Cat Hobaiter has been studying contains individual males such as Talisker and Pascal who do well for themselves by staying out of the power struggles, yet have friends and get respect.

We tend to deny the dark and unflattering aspects of human nature. Chimps deny nothing. Chimpanzees seem a cautionary tale. Their proximities unnerve us, and so does their honesty. They are all too unfiltered about who and how they are. Chimps are brutal, imperfect, often insensitive. So are many people. Wrote Frederick the Great in 1759, “In every man is a wild beast. Most of them don’t know how to hold it back, and the majority give it full rein when they are not restrained by terror of law.”

Other species have found more consistent peace. Chimpanzees seem to have trapped themselves in a more violent society than necessary. Chimps ask no more of themselves. We must ask no less of ourselves. If the science of watching animals has one great message for humankind, it’s that other paths are possible, and that female power—bonobos, elephants, sperm and orca whales, lemurs and others—tends to create space for peace. O


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