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Review of AN IMMENSE WORLD
Ed Yong’s latest book on animal senses
What is it like to be a bat? Or a dog? What about a mantis shrimp? It’s impossible to really know, but research is gaining a grasp on the fantastically diverse – and sometimes strange – sensory abilities of animals across the world. What scientists have shown is that the world we inhabit can be experienced quite different to other animals given the different abilities we have to detect and interpret various stimuli in the environment.
In his latest book, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, science writer Ed Yong goes on a tour of the alien world of senses in the animal kingdom to demonstrate that the world is much more than what meets the human eye (and ears, and nose, and tongue, and hands…). There are far more colors, sounds, and abilities we can’t even fathom when we look closely at what the wonderful process of evolution is capable of.
An Immense World is a world tour of research labs and curious scientists hoping to get a glimpse of how other animals perceive the world around us – or what Yong calls, an animal’s “umwelt”. It’s humbling to realize just how limited our human sensory capacities are in some respects when we compare them to other animals.
Humans are vision dominant – it’s the primary way in which we experience our world. We do, in fact, have excellent color vision, allowing (most) of us to see the classic ROYGBIV rainbow of colors. But many animals can see colors beyond the narrow spectrum we humans see, such as ultraviolet, or UV, light. In fact, UV light isn’t even uncommon to animals. We only think it’s uncommon because we can’t see it. But many pollinator insects, for example, can see UV light and doing so makes the experience flowers much different than our own.
Yong explores more than just light, diving into all the major senses we humans have and how other animals experience things like smell a bit differently. Fun fact, dogs can smell while breathing in and out – we can’t. Give it a try. We also use sound, yet most animals can’t hear. Technically most insects can’t here, but that makes it also true that most animals can’t hear since most animals are insects. Wild on both counts! He also dives into senses that we struggle to comprehend, like evolved sonar capabilities of bats and dolphins and magnetic navigation used by migratory birds.
An Immense World is a fantastic book for so many reasons. First, the number of “fun facts” about animals is delightful. But also, Yong’s great writing and expert investigative science abilities makes the book have both style and substance. Overall, it’s a wonderful book that should be on everyone’s to-be-read pile.
Published: June 2022
If you think this sounds interesting, bookmark these other great reads:
The Rise and Reign of the Mammals: A New History, from the Shadow of the Dinosaurs to Us by Steve Brusatte (2022)
The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think by Jennifer Ackerman (2020)
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake (2020)
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