How animals perceive the world differently than us
I’m always on the lookout for books and essays that explain how various non-human animals (animals) live in our world and theirs. I recently read a remarkable and very readable article book by Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Ed Yong called A Huge World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us and he’s now sitting atop an ever-growing pyramid of books on my office floor simply because he’s this good. It would be a perfect summer read while lots of people and other animals are doing their thing.1
I can only cover a fraction of the interesting non-human beings Yong writes about, so here are a few examples. He writes about dogs (their amazing noses, of course), cats, various birds, and other animals that many people are quite familiar with. He also tells us about the amazing sensory worlds of beetles and other insects that many people find disgusting, as well as turtles, bats, scallops, octopuses (which have brains in their arms), spiders (who think with their webs), crocodiles whose “scaly faces are as sensitive as a lover’s fingertips”, and much more.
By discovering the sensory worlds of other animals, we can also learn about our own senses, an important message in Jackie Higgins’ fascinating book. book, Sentient: how animals illuminate the wonder of our human senses. In an interview with Higgins, she noted that the platypus teaches us that what we see as reality is only a reflection of what our senses detect, and that it’s a surprisingly small fraction of the surrounding reality.
As Yong also points out, our own senses are very limited. They allow us to live our lives but come close to telling us what’s really out there. We only see one ten trillionth of the electromagnetic spectrum. Imagine expanding our range to perceive infrared heat, like vampire bats, or ultraviolet light, like birds. Can we really imagine feeling the taste of a catfish, the touch of a star-nosed mole, or the poise of a cheetah?
Higgins writes, “Ultimately, the natural world could inspire a brave new world of human sensibility.”
Among Yong’s many important messages, not only about the sensory lives of many animals, many of which are considered simple or mechanistic, uninteresting and unsophisticated, he highlights how learning from other animals can also help us discover the fascinating and often hidden. world we are immersed in daily and how seemingly innocuous human activities can hijack the lives of these animals by introducing what he calls “sensory pollution”.
Yong aptly writes, “Sensory pollution is the pollution of disconnection. “It disconnects members of the same species and of different species trying to communicate with each other and also us from them. How can we learn, appreciate and respect the lives of other animals when we do not allow them not to live the natural lives they are meant to live due to the way natural selection – evolution – has shaped them. Yong’s final chapter, “Save the Quiet, Preserve the Dark: Threatened Sensescapes” is a jewel.
If you’re looking for a great summer read on the lives of other animals, Yong’s book is as good a choice as any, and if you have the time, read Higgins’ book on Other People’s Phenomenal Senses as well. animals.
Last week, while cycling back to Boulder, I saw a class of youngsters on an off-road bike trail. I stopped to ask them what they were doing and a 6 year old girl and a 7 year old boy exuberantly explained to me that they were “studying different bugs and how they know how to get home”. Their teacher, an awesome and very patient woman, told me about their nature class and how it always went well over time because the kids had so many questions, and equally or more importantly, they realized how careful we have to be when we enter the lives of other animals. I told her about the Yong and Higgins books and she said she would read them as soon as she could and share the information with the children.
As I walked away, one of the students shouted, “We don’t touch bugs, we just watch them because they’re so cool.” I bet that would make Yong and Higgins very happy.