What happens when a philosopher and an ornithologist collaborate? Philippe J. Dubois and Elise Rousseau use the lens of bird behavior to present a deep examination of what it means to be human. Newly translated from the French by Jennifer Higgins, A Short Philosophy of Birds (Dey Street, $19.99) touches on equality, family, love, beauty, freedom, power, pleasure, otherness, death, and more. Some philosophical questions must be asked anew by each generation and some questions are of emerging importance. To the question of freedom, the authors point to hens and doves who, when allowed complete freedom, stay near their coops. To the question of gender equality in parenting—a matter seldom considered by many generations of male philosophers—Dubois and Rousseau point to the sandpiper, who lays two separate clutches of eggs, one for her to raise, and one to be raised by her mate, creating two independent "households." This unique, trim volume is an antidote to the unexamined life and a balm for the nature lover or those fed up with human behavior.
A heartwarming tale of the bond between humans and animals, Running With Sherman (Knopf, $27.95), by Christopher McDougall—best known for his bestselling Born to Run—is another masterful, fun, and inspiring memoir. This time he tells the story of Sherman, an abused donkey McDougall and his family adopted and brought to their farm in the Amish Country. Sherman was not expected to survive, but after McDougall did as someone advised and gave him a job—the donkey began to thrive. The job was preparing for the World Championship Leadville Burro Race in Colorado, an annual marathon run by humans and donkeys, side-by-side. Full of the kind of kooky characters and long-distance runners typical of McDougall’s other books, this one is more than just a compelling, feel-good page-turner. It’s also a powerful argument for why animals matter in our evolution of society, and how damaged we humans become when we turn away from them.
Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers, an evolutionary biologist and science journalist, respectively, taught us a lot about animals, humans, and the diseases we share in their groundbreaking Zoobiquity. Again skirting the twin dangers of anthropomorphism—making animals too much like us—and anthopodenialism—missing the connections between us and animals—their new work looks at how both animals and humans experience adolescence. Shared by nearly all species, from insects and amphibians to birds and mammals, adolescence, or, as the authors term this pivotal developmental stage, Wildhood (Scribner, $28), is crucial to helping the young develop skill sets concerning safety, status, sexuality, and independence. Examining each life lesson in detail, the book tracks the experiences of a juvenile penguin leaving her Antarctic birthplace for the treacherous seas; a young male hyena, born at the low-end of his species’s totem pole; the complicated romantic history of a humpback whale; and a wolf who has to go off and survive on his own. Full of fascinating details about these four species and many others, these coming-of-age stories also bear profound similarities to those of their human counterparts. If teens seem maddeningly reckless, over-sensitive, and obsessed with status, this book shows that they are only behaving as evolution prepared them to.