Posted by: greentangle | May 28, 2022

Immensities

An Immense World is a well-written book by Ed Yong, whom I’ve enjoyed hearing discuss covid on NPR over the past couple years, and is scheduled for publication June 21st.

It’s an immense book, also, filled with examples of various animals and their senses from sight and sonar to electric and magnetic fields, and the ways humans try to learn about them. I’m not very interested in the scientific details (cells, neurons, rods, cones, whatever) of how something works, but rather in the variety of results in how the animal relates to the world. The author does a good job of mixing these aspects so that my eyes would only glaze over briefly.

I often found myself looking up photos of the animals being written about, such as when I wanted to see a scallop’s dozens of (often bright blue) eyes. Apparently, many species can see the ultraviolet light which we can not–we like to think we see the world accurately, but we’re really just another species like all of them, who use their senses to live in a species subjective world. The author makes the point that this is not a book about ranking or superiority, but about diversity, and that all creatures have worth in themselves, quoting a passage about animals from Henry Beston which I’ve always loved. And yet . . .

When encountering new facts about an animal, I’d often think how fascinating it was. If you like the subject and accept it at face value, you’ll enjoy the book. But thinking of the experiments needed to learn those facts, I’d be reminded of how humans regard the planet and all life on it merely as objects to be manipulated. If a person uses other people that way, they’re considered narcissistic, sociopathic, self-centered, egotistical, etc. I don’t believe there’s a meaningful difference when the attitude is directed toward other forms of life. Sure, cool facts, and occasionally we even use those facts to try to solve a problem we created, but I would have been a lot happier living in a society which had fewer cool facts about other forms of life and more respect for that life. That society probably wouldn’t have created the problems in the first place.

In the final chapter, the author moves away from particular senses and examples to a bigger picture. He justly bemoans the damage our species has done to the planet and the interference done to animals’ lives inadvertently, but all of the previous chapters are about interference done deliberately. Conveniently, it turns out that he considers our ability to try to figure out other animals our greatest sensory skill and that we must choose to do so (to give credit, he does acknowledge it’s not something we’ve earned). So much for other animals having worth in themselves—their lives are ours to control.

He also mentions that he agrees with Cronon’s famous essay about the word wilderness and how it affects the human/nature relationship. There have been many rebuttals and clarifications about that essay over the years, all of it is just human-centered wordplay, but I have to comment. Sure, if you have a backyard, it’s a form of nature you can find wonder in, and it should be respected and treated with care. It may be wilderness for an insect, but a grizzly bear or a wolverine can’t live there. I lived in Yellowstone for four years, and to claim that everywhere is wilderness and there is no qualitative difference in the value of different locations is simply foolish. People are dependent on and should live as a part of nature, but most in this country don’t. When people try to spend as much of their lives as possible removed from nature, it’s disingenuous to claim that people are a part of it when it’s convenient to the argument.

To sum up, a lot of information about animal senses and how those senses affect how the animals live (or evolutionarily vice versa), and a lot of concern expressed about them and the planet. The concerns are valid but they don’t question the status quo deeply enough. It’s like being meticulous about recycling while living a high consumption lifestyle, or only eating free range chickens—it might make you feel better, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. People who have an interest in animals but believe people are more important than anything else will enjoy the book. People who don’t share that opinion will learn a lot of details but be left unsatisfied.

Thanks to Random House and NetGalley for the advance copy to review.


Responses

  1. My sympathies are with you (if not my proclivities) in your review of Ed Yong’s book. A very good review, indeed!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Thanks, Don.

  2. I often feel great awe when I consider how plants, animals, fungi, etc. communicate and survive, using abilities and senses we humans can’t even imagine. We are like radio receivers surrounded by TV signals we can’t possibly interpret.

    • Yes, it’s a wonder-full world. I wish more people appreciated as you do.


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