By stating his ambition to “explore their senses to better understand them theirs alive,” Yong is true to his word. A longtime Atlantic staffer, he has an Attenborough-like talent for digging simple stories out of the limitless mess of the natural world. A look into the eyes of scallops, for example, becomes a window through which to marvel at the dozens or even hundreds of moving eyeballs attached to this staple seafood. Yong describes visiting bay scallops with eyes like ” neon blueberries.” When threatened, the creatures scramble furiously to freedom, “opening and closing their shells like panicked castanets.”
An immense world‘s most revealing anecdotes are those that invert our worldview and help us understand how evolutionary pressures have structured physical reality. It tells us that bees, like us, have trichromatic eyes: they perceive three primary colors. In his case, however, the light-sensitive cells are tuned to green, blue, and ultraviolet. “You might think that these pollinators evolved eyes that see flowers well, but that’s not what happened,” he writes. “Their style of trichromacy evolved hundreds of millions of years before the first flowers appeared, so the later ones must have evolved to match the earlier ones. Flowers evolved from colors that ideally tickle the eyes of insects”.
Unlike Yong, Jackie Higgins sees the talents of animals as a lens on our own faculties. Higgins, who was a science filmmaker for the BBC before becoming an author, focuses each chapter of feeling about the remarkable sensory adaptation of an animal, but requires anecdotal diversions, a la Oliver Sacks, to explore cases at the limits of human capacity. Taking cues from The naked ape—Desmond Morris’ hippie-era fusion of zoology and ethnography that interpreted human behavior as the result of a grand speculative evolutionary narrative—appreciates the study of animals as “a mirror we can hold up to satisfy the self-obsession,” adding that “it offers another perspective on why humans look, act, and feel the way we do.”
“We don’t see with our eyes, but with our brains. In the same way, we don’t just hear with our ears, smell with our nose, taste with our tongue or feel with the sensors of our fingers.”
There’s the peacock mantis shrimp, which has the most complex eyes yet discovered (with 12 types of photoreceptors to our three), and the star-nosed mole, which includes six times as many touch sensors in its gaping snout as a centimeter wider than yours. in a whole hand. Each chapter highlights a sense, so in considering color vision, he combines the example of shrimp with those of humans struggling with their own equivalent sense: the residents of Pingelap Atoll, for example, the “island of the colorblind”. and an anonymous English woman, codenamed cDa29, who has a fourth type of photoreceptor that allows her to see millions of colors invisible to the rest of us.
In reading Higgins, we spend more time with an organ that seems deliberately unprobed by Yong: the brain. For her, the brain is everywhere, necessarily as “the most important sense organ in our body”. Paraphrasing the American neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita, Higgins writes: “We do not see with our eyes, but with our brains. Likewise, we not only hear with our ears, smell with our noses, taste with our language or feel with the sensors of our fingers”. In feeling, we learn that scattered throughout the human brain we can find a “sensory homunculus,” a tactile map of the body with large areas corresponding to our hands and lips, reflecting the density of tactile sensors in those areas. There are animal equivalents: “mouse,” “raccoonunculus,” “platypunculus,” and star-nosed “moleunculus,” which also represent the primacy of whiskers and sensitive noses in these species. In fact, the most affecting sections of the book are closer to the mind, such as the chapter on the “slow lane” of the skin, the tactile system that responds to caresses. The system is found in social mammals, including ourselves, but also vampire bats, which have been observed giving each other blood after grooming. It’s a rare sense that communicates not so much information as mood: “By attuning us to tenderness,” Higgins writes, “it transforms touch into interpersonal glue and skin into a social organ.”
Through this, we learn that most of what constitutes the perceptual world is constructed in the darkness of our heads rather than in the sense organs themselves, whose role is limited to translating stimuli into electrical signals. Yet, as Higgins and Yong conclude, we can actually understand a lot about what it’s like to be another creature, so we’re left wondering about this central organ, without having built a clear picture of any other species’ brain: its structure and function. . nor did it elucidate much of what goes on within it: its cognition or its thinking. Enter Philip Ball’s The book of minds. For Ball, the senses are just one way into a wide-ranging exploration that begins with the animal mind and winds its way through consciousness, artificial intelligence, aliens, and free will. His book asks: What kinds of minds exist, or could exist, beyond our own? Ball, a prolific science writer and former editor of Nature magazine, also opens with a story of Sacks, who recalled pressing his large, bearded face against the window in a mother orangutan’s enclosure at the Toronto Zoo . When each placed a hand against opposite sides of the panel, Sacks wrote, the two furry primates shared an “instant, mutual recognition and sense of kinship.”
While it’s not clear whether we can know what it’s like to be a bat, it seemed obvious to Sacks that what it’s like to be an orangutan is not only knowable, but we can easily intuit it. Ball’s exploration of the minds of others negotiates this path between solipsism—the skeptical philosophical position that none of us can know anything beyond our own minds—and anthropomorphism, which naively projects our own qualities onto the not human According to him, humans, bats and orangutans are just three examples within a “space of possible minds” that could also include AI, aliens and angels.