Everything Is Just Dandy!

The Wonderful World of Animal Senses and How it Expands Our View of the Universe

Current Affairs
Current Affairs
2022-08-20
https://www.currentaffairs.org/2022/08/the-wonderful-world-of-animal-senses-and-how-it-expands-our-view-of-the-universe/


Ed Yong is a science writer who writes for the Atlantic and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his writing on COVID. He is the author of I Contain Multitudes, which is about the world of microbes and, most recently, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, which is about all of the fascinating ways in which animal senses differ from our own, and how they show the immense amount of information in the universe that is inaccessible to human beings. Yong came on the Current Affairs podcast to talk with editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson about his book. This interview has been edited for grammar and clarity.

Robinson

I want to start with a question that doesn’t seem like it’s related to your book, but I think it is. Did you see the pictures from the James Webb telescope? And what did you think?

Yong

I did. They were beautiful. They’re absolutely extraordinary. The amount of information that we can get going back to almost the beginning of the universe is a literal galaxy brain moment.

Robinson

Looking at those, I felt emotions that I hadn’t felt in a while. Do you feel that?

Yong

Very much so. My colleague Marina Koren at the Atlantic has written beautifully about it and her work really captures the momentousness of the images. It’s difficult to truly capture the scale of them in both space and time.

Robinson

When I was looking at those images, I was also preparing to interview you. They made me think of your book. I was reading about how they put the images together.  The colors, for instance. They’re not how the naked eye sees them.

Yong

Right.

Robinson

The images are reconstructed. I started thinking about some of the same things that come across in your book, which is that there is so much more to the universe than the human eye can see. What they’re doing with the telescope by putting these images together is expanding the senses in a way similar to what you’re doing in your book.

Yong

Yes. Absolutely. I wrote about this at the very end of the book, bringing things full circle to the start. The core idea of the book is that every animal, including humans, is limited in what we can perceive about the world around us. We are trapped in our own little sensory bubble, or what is called the umwelt [pronounced oom-velt]. The umwelt is the specific set of sights and sounds and textures and smells and all the rest that we can perceive and that other creatures might not. This idea of a sensory bubble, the fact that we perceive just a thin sliver of reality’s fullness, was popularized and pioneered by a German scientist named Jakob von Uexküll in the early 20th century. He wrote beautifully about the sensory worlds of ticks and dogs and other creatures. 

He also wrote about the umwelt of the astronomer. He said that through gigantic optical aids, this unique creature has eyes that are capable of penetrating outer space as far as the most distant stars. The tools of astronomy capture stimuli that other animals can’t sense. Technology can detect x-rays and radio waves and gravitational waves and can extend our umwelt, our sensory bubble, to almost the very beginning of the universe. The ability to technologically extend our umwelt is actually a remarkable human skill. And it’s one that we have used to understand the umwelt of all the other creatures around us. So technology gives us an edge. But so does imagination. There’s a feeling of wonder and awe that you get when you look at the images from the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s a melding of imagination and technology that gets us to a place where we can really start to think about and appreciate the experiences of other creatures. 

Robinson

Your book is interesting. One may start reading it and say, I’ve always heard that bats have echolocation. And I’ve always heard that dogs have good noses, and all of that stuff. But there are a lot of facts that people don’t know, and your book is an attempt to take facts that people do know or think they know and to ask us to dwell on the implications of these things. The big implication, of course, is in the title. When we start to really think about all of the senses that other animals have, and all of the data that they pick up on, and all of the things that they see that we don’t, and the things that they feel that we don’t, what we start to realize is that the world around us is so much richer in information than we assume.

Yong

I totally agree with that. The book does double duty here. It’s about showing us that animals have these experiences that are hard for us to imagine, which are cooler and more interesting than we might have assumed. But it also does show us, exactly as you say, that the world around us, even surroundings that we think of as boring and familiar, is actually thrumming with unfamiliarity and with things that we don’t know and don’t perceive.

Let’s say we have an electric fish or a rattlesnake or a hummingbird or a bee or an elephant in here. They would all experience completely different parts of this world than what I’m experiencing. The snake would sense the infrared radiation coming off hot surfaces, including my body. The elephant would smell things that my nose can’t detect. The hummingbird would see colors that I can’t see. All of this shows that even the most familiar aspects of our lives are full of mystery and magic. The way to understand all of that is to think about what other animals perceive.

Robinson

Yes. You mentioned people out walking their dogs, and the dog is stopping every five seconds to try to sniff some of the people and the owner yanks the dog. Let’s think about what is going on here. There is a map of smells that the dog smells. The dog is in this rich world of smell and by pulling the dog along, you’re depriving it of the things that enrich its experience.

Yong

Yes. Not only are we pulling it away from information that it wants to examine, but we’re depriving it of this really crucial part of its doghood. Smell is to dogs much like vision is to most humans. It’s a very primary sentence and their main way of exploring the world. When we go on walks and the dog smells things, the dog gets a sense of the neighborhood. He knows which dogs have walked by recently. It’s a social experience for him. Sniffing the ground, patches of dried pee—that’s like me checking up on my social media feed. When we’re walking along and I’m looking at Instagram on my phone, he’s sniffing his way around.  It’s a social act of exploration, a way of catching up. We’re doing exactly the same thing. By not thinking about the dog’s umwelt, many dog owners deprive their dogs of this rich experience.

Look, we have things to do as well. But at least once a day, I try to make sure that the walk is in the dog’s control and we go at his own pace. And when he gets control, when he gets agency, what happens is he smells and he takes his time and he really explores with his nose in this beautiful and delicate way. And, you know, we might spend half an hour going around our block. But I think that experience is so much more enriching for him than if we were just trotting along.

Robinson

And we are not only depriving the animals of their experience, but we’re depriving ourselves of the full knowledge of how fascinating these things are that we consider mundane. I started looking around me a little more closely lately. I went home two nights ago and a spider had built a cobweb between my bed and my lamp, and I was very annoyed and I pulled the cobweb. But thanks to you, I started thinking, What is the experience of the spider of my bed and lamp? What do they look and feel like to the spider? What is the spider’s world? You show us that there are as many different worlds as there are kinds of creatures because each creature constructs a world. It’s almost like we are surrounded by aliens.

Yong

Right. Each creature absolutely does construct a world in its mind. It’s funny that you should talk about a spider because the spider is very beautiful in that it also constructs its sensory world from its own body. The web is an extension of the spider’s own senses. Web-building spiders, especially those that build the beautiful orb webs that are so closely associated with spiders, live in a world of woven vibrations. They can detect the vibrations of things that land on the web. They can distinguish between the vibrations of insects and the vibrations of wind. They can use those vibrations to work out how big insects are and which kinds of prey to tackle. Some spiders, like the infamous Black Widow, can change what kinds of vibrational information they’re tuned into by changing their posture. There’s so much that spiders get from the environment. And it’s all the more remarkable because it is essentially a piece of technology that the animal creates from its own body, and then can tune. By changing the physical properties of the web, the spider can change the kinds of information that it is tapping into. And it reminds me of our cellphones, which are a technology that expands the range of our senses to the world around us.  When my friends think about me and send me a message, I get a little vibrational buzz on my thigh. That is the kind of thing that spiders do. But spiders have been doing that for millions of years.

Robinson

This also forces us as human beings to be a little more humble about our intelligence. We like to think of ourselves as the most sophisticated and intelligent species. You start to realize how much intelligence there is even in creatures that are barely visible to the naked eye.

Yong

This discussion of the umwelt concept is incredibly humbling. Humans have this meta skill of being able to appreciate other umwelts. And some of our senses are really great. We have very sharp eyes. We have very sensitive fingers. Our hearing is pretty good. But what the umwelt concept shows us is that there is no pinnacle, right? Every creature is extraordinary in some of its senses and incredibly weak in others, and every sense has its limits. 

So our sharp eyes, for example, come naturally with the weakness of poor sensitivity. You cannot have an eye that has both incredibly high resolution and incredible sensitivity, which is why humans are different from birds of prey. It’s very difficult for us to see our way around at night, whereas a lot of creatures with extremely good night vision have very low resolution eyes. So every creature sucks at something and excels at others. For all of our sensory virtues, we can’t detect the magnetic field of the Earth the way a humble songbird can. We can’t detect electric fields the way a shark or even a bumblebee can. We are also trapped within the limitations of our own sight and our own senses. It’s a really humbling thing.

You mentioned the idea of intelligence. The book isn’t about cognition and doesn’t make claims about intelligence. But there’s something there, too, in relation to the senses. I wrote about octopuses, which I think a lot of people now understand to be surprisingly intelligent creatures. How does the intelligence of an octopus manifest? Here is a creature with very different senses, good eyes, and a huge number of taste and touch receptors in their arms. Their arms collectively have more neurons in them than the animal’s actual brain, and the arms can work largely independently of the central head. They take directions from the head but often have their own agency that can improvise on their own. How does intelligence manifest from a creature with such a radically different nervous system and such radically different senses than ours? I don’t think it’s going to look the same as what we might think of as intelligent based on our own bodies.

Robinson

Your book catalogs endless mind-blowing animal facts. What are some of the favorite things that you discovered over the course of your research? What things really surprised you or blew your mind?

Yong

There are so many to choose from. I hope that every page has at least something that will make you put it down and stare off into the distance. I can pick a different one every time I’m asked this question. One thing that really blows my mind is that some animals can sense the Earth’s magnetic field. Sea turtles can do this. They navigate by using the magnetic field that envelops the entire planet as their guide. They seem to have both a map of that field and a compass that tells them where they are in the world and what direction to head in. And we know this because what happens when a baby turtle off the coast of Florida hatches is it goes on a clockwise loop of the Atlantic, swimming up the coast to the east coast of the U.S, toward Europe and back again. And the whole loop takes about a decade or so, after which the turtle is now fully grown and largely impervious to predators. 

When scientists take hatchling turtles and put them in laboratories and expose them to the kind of magnetic field that they would experience on different parts along that journey, the babies then move in the direction that would keep them on that clockwise loop. And that’s the case even if you take hatchling turtles that have never been into the ocean before, that have never touched water. Somehow they have not only the ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic fields, but some kind of inbuilt map, and an inbuilt sense of when to go, when they hit certain kinds of magnetic signposts. How that works, I can’t even begin to understand.

Robinson

It was a very humbling experience for me, the first time I got lost in a forest. I realized that I went not too far into the forest and completely lost my sense of direction. I think that was the moment I realized that so many other creatures were superior to me in so many ways. Reading your book is one of these humbling experiences that causes us to be astonished by creatures who can’t speak to us in a way we can understand. Your book is not an animal rights book right, but I do feel you do come out of it feeling a little disquieted by the casual cruelty or indifference of human beings toward animals. You use words like wonder and magic and awe to describe these animals that are the products of millions of years of evolution.

Yong

You’re right. When making arguments for animal rights, one can be very heavy-handed and hit people with hard moralistic arguments. Maybe there is a place for that. But you can also just show people what animals experience and let them come to that conclusion for themselves. I think that could be the case for a lot of readers of this book. It’s certainly the case for me. I already feel like I live a life where I treat animals with respect. But after writing about animals, I even feel reluctant to think about flies around my house as pests. One of the researchers I talked to a couple of times in the book, Eric Warren, who has studied insects throughout his entire career, says that insects can see colors in pitch black. Insects can also detect the Earth’s magnetic field and navigate over long distances like turtles can. Eric told me that he spent an inordinate amount of time just trying to gently shoo insects out of his house instead of trying to swap them. I feel like I’m at that place now. It’s hard to really immerse yourself in the lives of these creatures and end up not wanting to pay them more care, respect, and fondness.

Robinson

Your book is an empathy generator. It puts us into the experiences of other creatures. It forced me to feel very guilty about tearing down that cobweb.

Yong

That’s a good example. So you might still do that reflexively. But now you’ll think, and then maybe the next time you’ll pull back before the cobweb gets wrecked.

Robinson

I was like, this is such a beautiful thing. Oh, but I have to go to bed. At the end of your book, you talk about light and sound pollution and the way that our ignorance of creatures causes us to build places that are enormously destructive and harmful. Our cities don’t take into account the way that other creatures think and the information that they use to go about their lives.

Yong

Yes. We’ve already discussed a very simple example of dog owners yanking their dogs away from their sniffing adventures. But there are more profound ways we do this, too. The final chapter of the book is all about the idea of sensory pollution. That’s the concept that we have flooded the world with too much light and too much noise in places and at times where it doesn’t belong. We’ve flooded the darkness with light and the quiet with sound. And all of that can actually be surprisingly detrimental to animals around us. Light at night disturbs pollinating insects, migrating birds, and hatchling sea turtles, sometimes with fatal results. Sound pollution drives many animals away from areas that they would otherwise be very happy in.

There was one good experiment to create a phantom road somewhere in Idaho. They took recordings of traffic noise, and played them from speakers attached to trees. So here is a situation where we don’t have any risk that we’re going to have been hit by cars, there’s no vehicle exhaust, it’s just the noise. And the noise alone was enough to banish about a third of the bird species that normally live in this area. And it made a lot of the ones that stayed behind weaker and lighter. And this is a huge problem for migrating animals, those that are about to go on long, arduous journeys and need resources and all the reserves they can store. This study, the phantom road study, is just one of many examples in which it was demonstrated clearly that light and noise pollution are a big deal. And we need to treat them as such. 

Weirdly, we don’t think of this as a problem. Light is a good thing to us. We illuminated our ways out of the Dark Ages through the Enlightenment. Light is knowledge and goodness and safety. But for many animals at night, light is a problem. It’s also a problem that we can deal with. We can switch off a lot of sources of light and noise pollution. We can slow down the speed of cars and ships. We can do a surprising amount about this with immediate results in a way that we can’t really for a lot of other ecological problems. With climate change, even if we stop all the greenhouse emissions, there is momentum behind the problem. Addressing sound and light pollution is something we should take advantage of.

Robinson

Once we start to start to appreciate the subjective experience of animals, it also challenges some of our default conceptions of what nature and wilderness are. You talk about equating wilderness with this otherworldly magnificence, these unspoiled places out there, that we treat it as something remote and accessible only to the privileged, as something separate from humanity rather than something we exist within. You draw attention to the way we do not notice all the life that is around us at all times. That’s also why you wrote the previous book on microbes. When we start talking about all the life that is around us, we realize that every square inch of the world is teeming with life.

Yong

Absolutely. And that life is magnificent in its own right. If you’ve ever been to a park or a garden or any kind of green space, you will almost certainly have sat next to these little insects called treehoppers, which most people are never aware of, but which are everywhere, and which send these beautiful vibrational songs that are inaudible to our ears to the plants around us. The world is thrumming with these noises that we can’t hear. It’s not just sometimes that we miss things because we can’t see them because they’re literally too small for us to perceive. We also miss things because we think they’re boring. Every morning, I go on a walk with my dog around our neighborhood, and I see the same kinds of animals all the time. I see squirrels, I see starlings, I see sparrows. Those might seem like the most mundane creatures in the world. But sparrows can see a dimension of color that I can’t see, can see behind its head, can feel the currents of air over its wings as it flies. Even if it’s just sitting there, the sparrow is magnificent in its mere act of being.

This book is an attempt to draw people’s attention to the magnificence that I think we miss. We forget about the wonders of the world around us through sensory pollution, right? Noise pollution, for example, makes us less able to hear noises and makes us less able to hear noises over a distance. So it shrinks our sensory world to a much smaller physical bubble around us. And that’s partly why in the early days of the pandemic, when people got out more, people suddenly heard birds around them and it wasn’t because birds suddenly flocked into the area. They were always there. It’s just that we couldn’t hear them because of our own ruckus. And I describe sensory pollution as the pollution of disconnection. It disconnects us from the cosmo and from the stars. We should be able to see the stripe of the Milky Way, our own galaxy. We don’t because we have flooded the night with too much light. We are disconnected from the universe and also from the wilderness in our own backyards.

Robinson

In your section on light pollution, you have this very striking observation. You point out that nearly 80 percent of people in North America can no longer see the Milky Way. You quote a scientist who talks about light traveling billions of years from distant galaxies only to be washed out at the last billionth of a second by the glow from the nearest strip mall.

Yong

It’s horrible. Whenever I actually get to see a true starry night, it’s miraculous. It truly lifts my heart and spirit the way those telescope images do. Our minds and souls should be treated to that. But they’re not. And I think that’s an immense, immense shame.  It makes the world feel smaller. Part of this book, as its title suggests, is about trying to show us that the world is much more immense, is richer and deeper than we assume.

Robinson

Your book is not explicitly political, but I did sense political implications from it the way I do from the writings of Carl Sagan. In fact, I think one reviewer compared your writing to Carl Sagan, who in one famous ‘pale blue dot’ passage asks us to look at the tininess of the earth and see the way that it makes our human problems and dramas seem so petty, and the way it makes us want to preserve the earth that we have. It makes war look so futile and silly. It gives us this kind of feeling of delight at life and this desire to preserve it and nourish it. And I do feel that with the telescope images, with your book on microbes, and with your book on animal senses, what comes out of all of it is a plea to see the mundane as more complex.

Yong

Absolutely. I think that is a running theme throughout all my work. Most of my pandemic writing has been about showing that our society has hidden sides to it that make us more vulnerable to diseases in general and to a new virus in particular. We live in a world that is so complex. Much of what we need to understand is hidden from our experience. We live in a world that is so rich and deep. Much of what would move us and thrill us lies below the threshold of our perception. So, yes. All of my work is about trying to reveal hidden sides to nature and to society. Sometimes those are things we would rather not see. But we must grapple with it. And sometimes they’re things that we don’t see, but actually would be delighted to.

Robinson

One nice thing that comes out of this is that you’ll almost never be bored again. No matter what you look at, you’ll start to be fascinated by it. And you’ll start to ask yourself, how did this creature get here? How was this made? You said your work has a continuity to it. A lot of it has the same underlying theme or message. What’s the next hidden world that you would like to explore?

Yong

I try not to talk about future book ideas before they’re actually realities. In terms of this book and I Contain Multitudes, there’s a clear thematic thread that links them. And I can foresee continuing along that thread for at least a trilogy, if not more. This is an idea that has moved me throughout my career. So I would not be surprised if the next book picks up on that.