The premise of the book is that each species has access to a different part of reality, and we humans can gain new perspectives by tapping into these alien worldviews. This powerful idea, first proposed by the Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexkull in 1909, lingered for almost a century before it caught on with modern scientists. In the last decade, research into the way other animals perceive and make sense of the world — also known as the “environment” — has exploded. With “An Immense World,” Yong, a science writer at Atlantic, brings these findings together with a promise to give readers a science-based look at 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 empathize [other animals’] worlds,” writes Yong.
Yong advances sense by sense, from the familiar (sight, smell, taste) to the exotic (echolocation, electroreception, magnetoreception). He reveals a world of information that humans (thankfully, perhaps) are insensitive to: bats screeching all night in deafening decibels, katydids playing plant stems like violin strings, flowers lit up with ultraviolet portholes. Yong explains how these senses work – sometimes down to the biochemical level – and takes us on field trips to meet the scientists behind the findings, while masterfully weaving these disparate threads into a single narrative strand. But as I finished chapter after chapter, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were falling short of our promised goal: to understand what it’s like to be be another animal.
This can be impossible. You may be familiar with the essay “What’s it like to be a bat?” written in 1974 by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. Nagel argues that even a scientist who learns all about echolocation can never really imagine what a bat experiences, its environment. That’s because the bat has had a lifetime of insane experiences that shape their worldview, not to mention having a brain and body utterly different from ours. The best you can hope for, he argues, is to understand what it would be like She, be a human being a bat.
In my opinion, this is not a real limitation. Even if you could get a bat to talk, it would probably have trouble describing its lived, momentary experiences, just as you would be amazed if someone asked you to describe your sensory and conscious experiences. (That is, unless you happen to be James Joyce.) That’s because your environment is the only one you’ve ever known. As far as is possible, the only way to understand another animal’s environment is through comparison and imagination – two areas where Yong falls short.
Time and time again, Yong tiptoes to the abyss of another animal’s experience, but never quite takes the final imaginative leap. For example, when meeting with cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz and her dog Finn, Yong reflects on Horowitz’s insights into her dog’s olfactory-focused experience: “Smells linger in a way light doesn’t, revealing history. The previous occupants of Horowitz’s room didn’t leave any spooky visual traces, but Finn can see their chemical imprint.”
That’s all important information, but it doesn’t answer the underlying question: What’s it like? be a dog? Since we humans are such visual creatures, a visual metaphor might help: smells linger, so maybe a dog’s “look” at the world is like a long exposure photograph. Finn “sees” the ghostly, fading image of the dog that was here yesterday. He also has some X-ray vision (smells penetrate through surfaces), but he’s a bit myopic because smells don’t travel as far as light.
Overall, Yong avoids using metaphors for other senses, but when he indulges in them (or, more commonly, when he quotes a scientist making that imaginative leap), these are the parts of the book that I keep thinking about. When asked what it’s like to echolocate like a bat or a dolphin, Yong posits that it might be like “touching with sounds”.
However, what Yong never really achieves are animals inner lives. As part of the environmental revolution, scientists are studying how other animals are piecing together sensory information into a coherent experience of the world. This muddy and contentious area of comparative psychology and cognitive ethology asks questions like: Do dogs experience jealousy? (Yes!) Do cats understand cause and effect? (Maybe not!) Do dolphins have self-confidence? (Probably).
These insights expand the imagination and force us to think about new ways of experiencing the world. How about not feeling any separation between you and your surroundings? How would you experience time if it slowed down or speeded up depending on your body temperature? Do cats keep pushing things off the shelves because the result is always surprising?
While “An Immense World” doesn’t fully immerse readers in the world of other animals, it does make clear how much we humans miss – and misunderstand – not considering the worldviews of other animals. This in itself is a great achievement. Or, as Yong writes: “The task will be tough, as Nagel predicted. But in striving there is worth and glory.”
Sadie Dingfelder is a Washington-based author.
How animal senses reveal the hidden realms around us
Any house. 464 pages. $30
https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/07/01/if-only-humans-could-sense-world-way-animals-do/ Book Review by Ed Yong “A Vast World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us”.