In the United States today, 10 billion land animals are raised and killed for food annually. That’s over 19,000 animals per minute. About 1.1 million animals during the length of this podcast. Yet as far as federal law is concerned, farmed animals do not exist. They are not counted as “animals” under the country’s primary federal animal protection law, the Animal Welfare Act. Their status is finally changing at the state level, thanks to the remarkable work of our guest, corporate lawyer and activist David Wolfson.
In addition to his work leading Milbank globally, David teaches animal law and policy at NYU. He has previously taught animal law at Columbia, Harvard, Cardozo and Yale. He is the author of a number of seminal articles and chapters on animal protection law and represents pro-bono many of the leading animal protection groups, including The Humane Society of the United States, Mercy for Animals, and Farm Sanctuary. With colleagues, he pioneered the first successful farm animal protection ballot initiative in Florida in 2002–a strategy that he has helped to replicate in many other states since then.
For decades, researchers have debated whether or not animals make friends. “Friends” — the taboo “f word” — was generally put in quotes if it was used at all. But if you study the social networks of elephants, whales and other animals, it is clear that they have friends just like we do, according to the renowned sociologist Dr. Nicholas Christakis. Friendship, like other societal characteristics, evolved independently and convergently across species. Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science, Dr. Christakis is a leading Yale sociologist and physician known for his research on human social networks and biosocial science. In this episode, he speaks with us about the ancient origins and modern implications of our common animality and his remarkable new book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.
In March of 2016, a group of scientists reported a discoveryfrom the forests of central Japan. Writing in Nature Communications, Dr. Toshitaka Suzuki and his team announced that compositional syntax, the property of speech that enables it to “express limitless meanings,” was not unique to human languages. It had been observed in the vocal system of a bird. The paper sparked a flurry of tweets. It was also picked up the popular press, and for good reason. Given the putative role of syntax in expressing higher order thought in humans, its presence in an avian vocal system suggested that when a bird sings it is not simply naming a stimulus in its immediate environment but, rather, expressing a thought.
For thousands of years, humans have been enthralled with dolphins. In Ancient Greece, dolphins were considered closer to the gods than any other creature, viewed as half divine messengers between men and gods. To kill a dolphin was an offense punishable by death. The second century Greco-Roman poet Oppian wrote, “Diviner than the Dolphin is nothing yet created for indeed they were aforetime men and lived in cities along with mortals.” Reverence for these creatures was not limited to the Greeks. There are caves in the French Pyrenees with Ice Age era dolphin engravings. Stories about dolphins are part of the Australian Aborigines’ understanding of the world known as “Dreamtime.” To the Maori of New Zealand, dolphins have long been seen as water spirits who can carry messages from island to island in times of need.
We are separated by 95 million years of evolution, and yet we intuitively feel a striking kinship and admiration for these intelligent creatures. Of course, mythologies like these, as our guest has pointed out, are not verified or scientific truths. “But,” she writes, “mythologies reach a different, deeper kind of truth, one that relies on resonance, not on demonstrable evidence. Mythologies do not account for the origin of people or dolphins in the way that scientific theories do, but mythologies tell us something about who we believe ourselves to be, our values and our place in the world in relation to all the other creatures of nature.”
For most of our planet’s history, geologic change on earth was steered by inanimate forces. Then modern humans arrived, triggering a new geological epoch now known as the “Anthropocene.” Coined in the 1980s by biologist Eugene Stoermer and popularized in 2000 by Nobel-prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, the word marks the transformation of the biosphere over the past 250 years—a change wrought not by solar radiation, tectonic activity, or volcanoes, but by human beings.
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.