The cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser once said, “The world of experience is produced by the man who experienced it.” The same is true for all creatures. We construct our private worlds of subjective experience according to the information our senses are attuned to. The human world represents only one of all the different animal worlds. So: What is it like — what is it really like — to be another creature? What is it like to see, smell, hear, taste and feel the world as they do? What is our world like — what are we like — to another? Our guest, the extraordinarily imaginative writer and explorer Dr. Charles Foster, wanted to find out.
So, Dr. Foster got down on all fours and tried his best to do just that, picking five types of animals close to home to try to inhabit. He lived as a Welsh badger for six weeks in the woods, eating earthworms, digging an underground den, sleeping in it during the day, and navigating by scent on his hands and knees at night. As an urban fox, he curled up in backyards in London’s East End and pawed through garbage cans for dinner scraps. As an Exmoor otter, he caught fish with his teeth and attempted to differentiate bowel movements with his nose. As a red deer, he let his toenails grow like overgrown hooves and was hunted by bloodhounds. And as a common swift, he followed the birds’ migration across Europe and into West Africa. In addition to immersing himself in these animals’ physical worlds, Dr. Foster immersed himself deeply in the physiological literature about these non-human ways of life. He recounts his adventures in non-humanness in his spectacularly imaginative, unorthodox, truly hilarious, daring, and award-winning book, Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, which The New York Times called “intensely strange and terrifically vivid … an eccentric modern classic of nature writing.”
The early twentieth century bio-philosopher Jakob von Uexküll studied the private worlds of animals, and the perceptual differences and similarities between our worlds. Uexküll used a musical metaphor to explain his idea that each organism has a distinct, subjective and all-consuming life-world. To Uexküll, in the words of Dorion Sagan, “Organisms are instruments in a sort of celestial music show of which we hear only strains.” In his view, as Sagan writes, the multitude of earth’s organisms — a word derived from the Greek word, organon, for “instrument” — formed a many-membered orchestra of extraordinary richness.
Once, while attending a symphony by Gustav Mahler and sitting beside a young man absorbed in following along the score, Uexküll wondered if it is “the task of biology to write the score of nature.” “Each voice of a person or instrument is a being for itself, but one which melts into a higher form through point and counterpoint with other voices, which from then grows further, gaining richness and beauty in order to bring forward to us the composer’s soul,” he wrote. “Reading the score,” the young man sitting beside him told Uexküll, “one can follow the growth and branching off of the individual voices that, like the columns of a cathedral, bear the weight of the all-encompassing dome. Only in this way does one get a glance into the many-membered form of the performed artwork.” Our guest on this episode has devoted his career to observing and writing these interplaying “scores” of natures, the stories of animals, through prose and poetry. His work has allowed millions of readers to hear and appreciate anew strains of non-human animals in nature’s symphony.
For 2.5 million years, humans sustained themselves by eating plants and animals that lived and reproduced without our manipulation. That changed 10,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens began to intervene in the lives of a few plant and animal species, sparking what we now call the Agricultural Revolution. The Industrial Revolution followed some 10,000 years later, in the early 1700s, revolutionizing our eating habits yet again. Just as the Humanist religions were defining human beings as the image of god, humans started to view animals as meat machines. Farmers brought the techniques of the factory system into the slaughterhouse, dramatically increasing the number of animals they could raise and kill for food. The industrialization of agriculture has led to the practice now known as “factory farming,” a multibillion dollar industry that controls nearly a third of Earth’s land, is transforming ocean ecosystems, and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than planes, ships, trucks, cars, and all other transport combined.
Remember how insects used to smash against your car windshield? Do you ever wonder why that rarely happens any more? The reason is not that insects have gotten better at avoiding highways. It’s because they’ve disappeared. Several years ago, scientists began reporting dramatic declines, domestically and internationally, in honey bees, monarch butterflies, moths, beetles, and lightening bugs. In the U.S., 900 million monarch butterflies have died over the last 20 years, 90 percent of the total, probably thanks to human activities. In the same period, we’ve seen the rusty-patched bumblebee population drop by 87 percent. These historic declines, what some scientists call the “windshield phenomenon” or an overlooked “ecological apocalypse,” could alter the planet in unknowable ways.
In this episode, we speak with a figure at the frontline of the fraught relationship between human beings and insects. Dr. Gale Ridge is an expert on bed bugs and a scientist at Connecticut’s Agricultural Experiment Station. Her primary research is on bed bugs, but her expertise extends to insect morphology, behavior, and ecology. Dr. Ridge is an EPA FIFRA Scientific Advisory Panel member, curator of The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station insect collection, and overseer of the Experiment Station’s Insect Inquiry Office, which fields thousands of queries each year. She has discovered and catalogued many new species of insects and serves as chair of the Connecticut Coalition against Bedbugs. She has also become an expert in delusional parasitosis.
Nobody loves termites. We admire bees and ants for their industry and for their collective decision-making, but, as our guest has written, while parents dress their children in bee costumes and animated ants star in Dreamworks movies, termites are at best crude cartoons on the side of pest control trucks. These bugs are also comparatively unexplored in academic studies. Between 2000 and 2013, about 6000 papers were published about termites. 49 percent were about how to kill them. Despite the fact that termites collectively outweigh humans ten to one, they have lacked a popular writer to bring them to the forefront of public attention. Our guest, Lisa Margonelli, is that writer and champion for the termites.
Her new book, Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology, introduces us to termites and the scientists who study them, so we can see them — and ourselves — in a way we never have before. But this isn’t just a fascinating book about nature’s most underrated bug. What makes this book really special is that it uses termites as a new portal to explore some of the biggest questions we have about technology, power, morality, the nature of science and scientific progress, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going.
In 1977, after finishing her doctorate in theoretical chemistry at Harvard, our guest Dr. Irene Pepperberg purchased a 1-year-old African Grey Parrot at a pet shop and named him Alex, an acronym for “Avian Language Experiment.” At the time, birds were not considered smart — but Dr. Pepperberg believed otherwise. For the next thirty years, she and Alex forged a deep bond as each other’s closest companions, and revolutionized how scientists and the public understand what it means to be “bird-brained.” Grey parrots may have walnut-sized brains, but Alex and Dr. Pepperberg showed that those brains have many capabilities long thought to be unique to primates — including the ability to speak and understand a human tongue . This feat is all the more remarkable considering that Alex’s and Dr. Pepperberg’s last common ancestor was a dinosaur that lived over 300 million years ago.
If you travel to Des Moines, Iowa and drive about 20 minutes southeast of the city center, you’ll find a large, unassuming cement complex with fenced in grounds. You’d never know it, but inside are five bonobos — including the world-famous 38-year-old Kanzi — thought to be the only remaining nonhuman apes capable of communicating verbally with humans. Not only have the bonobos in Iowa been shown to understand thousands of English words, but they are also capable of expressing wishes, plans, and opinions by pointing to pictograms developed by our guest, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, as part of her extraordinarily ambitious thirty-year investigation into their minds. (Bonobos are humanity’s closest living relatives — an egalitarian, matriarchal cousin of the chimp, sometimes called the “make love, not war” ape.) The investigation has been polarizing among researchers who study language in recent years.
Our guest, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, is a primatologist who has received global recognition for her contributions to the field of animal cognition and psychology. She is the author or co-author of over 180 scientific articles and of eight books, including Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind and the forthcoming Dialogues on the Human Ape with Laurent Dubreuil. Her numerous awards include honorary doctorates from the University of Chicago and Missouri State University, recognition from TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2011, and selection by the Millennium Project as the author of one of the 100 most influential works in cognitive science in the 20th century. She currently teaches at Missouri State University and serves as president of the Bonobo Hope Initiative.
For decades, radio astronomers have combed the skies for signals from alien life. But according to our guest, Dr. Peter Godfrey-Smith, we’ve overlooked a form of intelligence so remote from ours it might as well be alien. It’s our evolutionary cousin, the octopus, a sea-dwelling mollusk that made headlines in 2016 for escaping from a New Zealand aquarium through a drain pipe. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and ancient, says Godfrey-Smith, the octopus represents an independent experiment in the evolution of minds and complex behavior. It confronts us with a mind in many ways radically different from our own, with which humans have nonetheless managed to make contact. Diving with cephalopods has led him to wonder: what might these strange creatures have to teach us about consciousness?
A few years ago, our guest, molecular biologist Dr. Natalie Kofler, was completing her postdoctoral training at Yale University. She was actively using CRISPR gene-editing techniques to study the mammalian cardiovascular system to try to develop better tools to treat human vascular diseases. While attending talks on conservation biology at the Yale School of Forestry, she started to wonder: Could the invasive emerald ash borer be genetically edited with these same techniques to save American ash trees? Could coral reefs be genetically edited to be more resilient to warming waters? Should humans develop and use these technologies to change nature? If so, how? And who gets to decide?
When We Talk About Animals is a Yale University podcast devoted to exploring the big questions animals raise about what it means to be human. On each episode, we bring you a conversation with a leading thinker whose work has furthered human understanding of what animals think and feel, questioned how our society commonly talks about and treats other creatures, and/or challenged us to rethink our place in the animal kingdom. We’ll be hosting field biologists, filmmakers, neuroscientists, sociologists, journalists, philosophers, artists, legal scholars, historians and other thinkers to speak on one of the most interdisciplinary and morally pressing topics of our time. The series is supported by Yale University’s Human Nature Lab and produced by the Yale Broadcast Studio. Listen and subscribe on iTunes,Soundcloud,Spotify, or Stitcher.