Home Dog senses Review of “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us”, by Ed Yong

Review of “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us”, by Ed Yong

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An admission: I regularly argue with children about animal facts. Often they are right and I am wrong – I blame the educational cartoon “Wild Kratts”. But I may have regained the edge thanks to Ed Yong’s new book, “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal The Hidden World Around Us.”

The premise of the book is that each species has access to a different slice of reality, and we humans can gain new insights by tapping into these alien worldviews. This powerful idea, first proposed by Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909, marinated for the better part of a century before making its way among modern scientists. Over the past decade, research into how other animals perceive and make sense of the world — also known as “umwelt” — has exploded. With “An Immense World,” Atlantic science journalist Yong brings these findings together with the promise of giving readers a scientific insight into what it would be like to be another animal.

“Through patient observation, through the technologies at our disposal, through the scientific method, and above all through our curiosity and imagination, we can try to enter into [other animals’] worlds,” writes Yong.

Yong proceeds sense by sense, from the familiar (sight, smell, taste) to the exotic (echolocation, electroreception, magnetoreception). It reveals a world teeming with information to which humans are (perhaps fortunately) insensitive: bats howling with deafening decibels all night long, katydids playing plant stems like violin strings, blazing flowers with ultraviolet bull eyes. Yong explains how these senses work – sometimes down to the biochemical level – and takes us into the field to meet the scientists behind the discoveries, while masterfully weaving these disparate threads into a single narrative cord. But, as I finished chapter after chapter, I couldn’t help feeling that we were still falling short of our promised destination: to understand what it is to be another animal.

It may not be possible. You may be familiar with the essay “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” written in 1974 by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. Nagel argues that even a scientist who learns all there is to know about echolocation can never truly imagine the experience of a bat, its umwelt. That’s because the bat has a lifetime of crazy experiences that shape its view of the world, not to mention a totally different brain and body to ours. The best you can hope for, he argues, is to figure out what it would be like for you, a human, being a bat.

In my opinion, this is not a real limitation. Even if you could make a bat talk, it would probably struggle to describe its experiences, moment to moment, just as you would be baffled if someone asked you to describe your sensory and conscious experiences. (That is, unless you’re James Joyce.) That’s because your umwelt is the only one you’ve ever known. Whenever possible, the only way to understand another animal’s umwelt is through comparison and imagination – two areas where Yong falls short.

Again and again, Yong tiptoes over the precipice of another animal’s experience, but never quite makes that final imaginative leap. For example, when meeting cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz and her dog Finn, Yong contemplates Horowitz’s insights into her dog’s olfactory experience: “Smells linger in a way that light does not, revealing the ‘story. The former occupants of Horowitz’s room left no ghostly visual traces, but their chemical imprint is there for Finn to detect.

This is all crucial information, but it doesn’t answer the underlying question: what does it look like? be a dog? Since we humans are such visual creatures, a visual metaphor might help: smells linger, so perhaps a dog’s “view” of the world resembles a long-exposure photograph. Finn “sees” the fading ghostly image of the dog that was there yesterday. He also has some x-ray vision (smells traveling through surfaces), but he’s a bit nearsighted, as smells don’t travel as far as light.

On the whole, Yong avoids using metaphors for other meanings, but when he indulges in them (or more often, when he quotes a scientist taking that imaginative leap), these are the parts of the book to which I keep thinking. On the question of what it’s like to echolocate like a bat or a dolphin, Yong posits that it could be like “touching with sound”, “It’s like a dolphin reaching out and shaking its surroundings with fantasy hands,” he wrote.

What Yong never really gets to, though, are the animals interior Lives. As part of the umwelt revolution, scientists are exploring how other animals piece together sensory information into a coherent experience of the world. This, the squishy and controversial field of comparative psychology and cognitive ethology, asks questions such as: Do dogs experience jealousy? (Yes!) Do cats understand cause and effect? (Maybe not!) Do dolphins have a sense of self? (Most likely).

These discoveries stretch the imagination and force us to contemplate new ways of experiencing the world. What would it be like to feel no separation between you and your environment? How would time feel if it slowed down or speeded up based on your body temperature? Do cats always push things off the shelves because the result never fails to surprise?

Although “An Immense World” doesn’t quite immerse readers in the world of other animals, it does show how much we humans miss – and misunderstand – when we fail to take into account the worldview of animals. other animals. This, in itself, is a major achievement. Or, as Yong writes: “The task will be difficult, as Nagel predicted. But there is value and glory in the effort.

Sadie Dingfelder is a Washington-based writer.

How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us

Random house. 464 pages. $30