The “Perceptually Divergent” Are Open to How Species Differ in Their Sensory Trade-Offs

(p. C1) That I found myself surprised at so many moments while reading “An Immense World,” Ed Yong’s new book about animal senses, speaks to his exceptional gifts as a storyteller — . . .

. . .

(p. C4) Yong’s book is funny and elegantly written, mercifully restrained when it comes to jargon, though he does introduce a helpful German word that he uses throughout: Umwelt. It means “environment,” but a little more than a century ago the Baltic German zoologist Jakob von Uexküll used it to refer more specifically to that sensory bubble — an animal’s perceptual world.

. . .

The human Umwelt will necessarily shape how we apprehend other Umwelten. “An Immense World” inevitably refers to the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s foundational essay on this struggle, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”

But some humans might be more open-minded than others. A number of the sensory biologists Yong meets are perceptually divergent, seeing color differently or having difficulty remembering familiar faces: “Perhaps people who experience the world in ways that are considered atypical,” he writes, “have an intuitive feeling for the limits of typicality.”

When it comes to sight, there’s a trade-off between sensitivity and resolution; humans tend to have extraordinary visual acuity during the day but have a much harder time seeing at night, while animals with better night vision don’t register the crisp images at a distance that we do. “Senses always come at a cost,” Yong writes. “No animal can sense everything well.” The world inundates us with stimuli. Registering some of it is taxing enough; fully processing the continuous deluge of it would be overwhelming.

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “An Enthralling Tour Of Nonhuman Reality.” The New York Times (Thursday, June 23, 2022): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 22, 2022, and has the title “‘An Immense World’ Is a Thrilling Tour of Nonhuman Perception.”)

The book under review is:

Yong, Ed. An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms around Us. New York: Random House, 2022.

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