Ep. 9 – Being Charles Foster Being a Beast

Dr. Charles Foster’s son, Tom, goes underground as a badger. “I was looking in the course of research for this book at tools that would allow me to probe the mystery of otherness simply so I wouldn’t feel as alone in the world as I suppose most of us do,” Dr. Foster says. “I wanted to convince myself that I could have a proper conversation, not at cross purposes, with my wife, and my children, and my best friend. And one way of reassuring myself that was possible was to see if I could know anything at all about creatures that are not so closely akin to me.“ (Photo courtesy of Charles Foster)

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.

“I bought in to the delusion that the natural world was a resource, that it was something to be controlled, that it was something to be subdued, that it was something to be frightened of,” Dr. Foster says. “That’s the delusion of our culture, and the cancer that eats away at the center of it.”
(Photo courtesy of Charles Foster)

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.”

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Ep. 8 – Charles Siebert on translating nature’s symphony

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.

“Our human gaze has been misdirected,” says journalist and poet Charles Siebert. “We look heavenward for deliverance when deliverance comes from looking down and back into the biology from whence we came and that great symphony  we’re part of.”
(Photo courtesy of Charles Siebert)

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.

“Words are all we have… We’re stuck with words, but there’s a way to manipulate them and use them to free our thoughts and our thinking rather than build cages,” Siebert says. The windowsill in Siebert’s office hosts a menagerie of animal figurines. Each represents an animal he’s written about, and many represent creatures that we are at risk of losing forever. (Photo courtesy of Charles Siebert)
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Ep. 7 – “Eating Animals” film director Christopher Quinn on the hidden costs of factory farming

The award-winning screenwriter, film director and producer Christopher Quinn’s latest film, “Eating Animals,” explores the costs of cheap meat. “It’s not just about losing all these resources, but about losing ourselves,” he says. “Our sense of self. Our spirit.”

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.

“The very idea that there are these large corporations that make it so farmers are contractually bound not to talk about farming to their neighbor — and if they do they can be sued by the corporation — is a fundamental breakdown of who we are,” says Quinn. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Quinn)
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Ep. 6 – Dr. Gale Ridge on bringing peace to humans’ befuddling relationships with bugs

Dr. Gale Ridge with sign about bed bugs
A concert pianist-turned-entomologist, Dr. Gale Ridge is an insect detective. She solves mysteries and helps thousands of perplexed, struggling people with all varieties of bug problems — from bedbugs to agricultural pests to imaginary bugs that infest our consciousness.

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.

Dr. Gale Ridge with students
“We have this habit of putting everything in little boxes,” says Dr. Ridge, pictured here with students.”But that’s just a control mechanism. Science is an art. When you’re working in science, you’re looking at the macro as well as the micro simultaneously. Just like playing a piece on the piano. There is no difference.”
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Ep. 5 – Lisa Margonelli on the big ideas termites raise about science, technology, and morality

Termite mound photo by Lisa Margonelli
“When I started the book, the working premise of termites was that you could model them with a little robot,” author Lisa Margonelli says. “In a way that goes back to Descartes, who said that animals are soulless automata… What happened was the termites didn’t really act the way they were expected to act once they were in experimental situations… It was a revelation: the termites themselves were individuals.” (Photo by Lisa Margonelli.)

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.

Lisa Margonelli Photograph
“It was really kind of a revelation: the termites themselves were individuals,” Margonelli says. “To think that there’s a mound of 5 million termites and they’re individuals, that’s kind of a big thing.”

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.

Inside a termite mound, photo by Lisa Margonelli
There are at least 3,000 named species of termites. The genus Macrotermes, which is pictured here and found in Africa and south-east Asia, farms and builds its mound around a massive fungus. The maze resembles a giant wriggling brain, with folds and bends that increase the structure’s surface area. “[We] also have a brain that has a distinct architecture,” says Margonelli. “That architecture gives us certain limits to how to think about things without projecting narratives on them. And one of our biggest narratives is that they are little humans in insect suits giving us a demonstration of how life ought to be.” (Photo by Lisa Margonelli.)
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Ep. 4 – Irene Pepperberg on revolutionizing what humans think of bird brains

Dr. Irene Pepperberg, pictured here with Griffin, an African Grey Parrot, at Harvard University. (Photo by Stephanie Mitchell.)

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.

“I had to always maintain a distance,” Dr. Pepperberg says. “I always had to treat Alex as a colleague [and] put aside any feelings I had, because they couldn’t color what I was doing… I kept that [distance] until he passed, and that’s when that barrier completely shattered.” Dr. Pepperberg is pictured here with Alex, Griffin and Arthur. (Photo courtesy of Brandeis University.)
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Ep. 3 — Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on speaking with bonobos, humanity’s closest living relatives

 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.

“We define humanness mostly by what other beings, typically apes, are not,” Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh says. “With Darwinian theory, this idea that we were special because God created us special had to be put aside. And so language became, in a way, the replacement for religion.”

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. 

Book recommendations: 

Dialogues on the Human Ape by Laurent Dubreuil and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram


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Ep. 2 – Peter Godfrey-Smith asks: What can the octopus teach us about consciousness?

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?

“The whole picture that we inherit from earlier philosophical traditions of a body as something that is semi-distinct from the mind, something that is steered around by a central controller…is very much put into question by the octopus, which has such a different relationship between the control systems and the thing being controlled, the material body itself,” says Dr. Peter Godfrey-Smith. 
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Ep. 1 – Natalie Kofler asks: What role should humans play in editing nature?

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?


“This goes well beyond just using expertise and intellect,” Dr. Natalie Kofler says. “This is about … what is important to our world, what kind of future we are trying to create, and what our relationships look like with other humans and with the other species that we share our planet with.”
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Ep. 0 – Coming Soon: When We Talk About Animals

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.