Science

It’s an Immense World and We’re All Living in It

Ed Yong on what we misunderstand about animals—including why cows are so much smarter than they look.

Tiled cover of the book An Immense World featuring a monkey looking up at a butterfly
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo via Amazon.

Dogs do see color. Naked mole rats are oblivious to pain. The first insects couldn’t hear a thing, instead relying on small organs in their joints to sense things moving around them.

These are but a few of the many revelations in Ed Yong’s newest book, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. You may recognize Yong’s name from his Pulitzer Prize–winning coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. His newest project is a refreshing change for Yong and readers alike. In An Immense World, which follows his 2016 bestseller I Contain Multitudes, Yong uses the concept of the animal’s Umwelt, or perceptual environment, as a framework for helping readers understand animal senses on a deeper level. And those senses go further than the classic five to include surface vibrations, pain, and magnetic fields, among others. In doing so, he demonstrates how every living thing perceives the world—and its beauty— in a different way.

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I spoke with Yong about animal perception, how writing the book shaped his relationship with his dog, Typo, and the throughline between pandemic reporting and his work on animal senses. Our interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Hannah Docter-Loeb: At the beginning of the book you mentioned the idea that this book is not about one animal being better than another, but about diversity and “animals as animals.” But are there any animals that especially amazed you as you were doing your research? I personally was fascinated with the mantis shrimp.

Ed Yong: Mantis shrimps are certainly a favorite. It’s weird that this obscure group of creatures just yields so much fascinating biology, like the speed of their punches to the weird nature of their eyes. There’s a little bit of myth-busting around some of the mythology that’s built up around them in the book, but they remain a perennial favorite. They’re also just very beautiful animals.

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There’s a whole chapter about animals that can sense electric fields. One of them is called the black ghost knife fish, and it just looks very unfishlike. It has this tapered, leaflike body, and an undulating ribbon fin that runs the length of that body.

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It’s hard, though. There are many creatures in the book that I could say as an answer to this. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a fondness for some of the creatures that a lot of people find gross or off-putting, which is why the book has stuff about bats and scorpions and snakes and quite a lot of spiders. I actually had to be quite restrained with the amount of spider content that was in it.

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Throughout the book, you talk about misconceptions we have about animals due to our lack of understanding of their senses. For example, there is a human-constructed idea of otters as lazy because they’re always on their backs, but really they’re these inquisitive creatures with an amazing sense of touch. Were there any deeply held misconceptions that you had going into reporting that you were able to debunk?

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The otters are a good example of us doing classic anthropomorphism. When we see an animal lying on its back, we equate lying on your back as being lazy, and we, therefore, think of this animal as it leads a sedate, chill life. Whereas in fact, it’s frantically foraging all the time because it’s a small animal in a cold ocean, and it needs to eat a lot to maintain its body temperature.

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There were other subtle things that I realized in writing the book that fit into this category. For example, we tend to equate active eyes with active intelligence. We think of animals that look around as being inquisitive and curious about the world and therefore possessed of advanced intellect. By contrast, animals that don’t do that, like, say, a cow that’s just staring there off into the distance—it seems like it’s dumb. That again is anthropomorphism. A lot of animals don’t need to look around, because the setup of their eyes and their heads means that they already have a wraparound view of the world. A lot of grazing animals have that. Most birds other than owls have that. Looking around isn’t actually a sign of intelligence. It’s a consequence of having two eyes that point forward on your head.

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I’m scratching my dog as we speak, and he is looking at me. But right in front of his eyes is his nose, which is his primary sense organ, the means through which he explores the world around him. There’s sort of no functional difference between Typo turning to sniff me and Typo looking at me, but we think about the eyes. We focus on the eyes, because that’s what those of us who are sighted rely upon most. That’s another human-centric way of thinking about what other animals are doing.

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Has researching and writing this book influenced your relationship with Typo, and how you engage with him?

The section about dogs and the chapter on smells was actually the first part of the book that I wrote. I wrote that after talking to Alexandra Horowitz, who’s an amazing writer and researcher on dog senses and dog cognition. I wrote that bit over a year before actually getting Typo. Her ideas and this idea about letting dogs be dogs and letting them use their sense of smell to its fullest profoundly influenced the way I interacted with him.

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My wife and I made sure that we emphasized smell stuff quite early on. We fed Typo from a snuffle mat, which encourages him to root around with his nose for food. We’d play smell games around the house. I’ll make him sit in a corner of the room, hide a piece of kibble somewhere, and tell him to go find it, and he’ll sniff his way. He’s very good at that.

When we go on walks, sometimes we’re walking to get somewhere, we go into a park or something, but at least once a day we try and take him for a walk that is his to control. He sets the pace. He gets to sniff to his heart’s content. It’s a joy to watch him just explore, to go on these little olfactory odysseys. It’s a manifestation of his curiosity in the world, and I’m just glad that we can give him the chance to do that.

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How has writing the book and learning about animals influenced your relationships with the more “mundane” animals of the world, such as a spider or a mouse?

A lot of the book is about trying to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. I find it very difficult now to look at birds in the same way. There is one sparrow that has nested in the house opposite ours, and that just belts song into our bedroom every morning now. You know, it’s a sparrow, right? It’s the most common of birds. It’s a little drab, but it’s hard not to see it as spectacular. It has access to an entire dimension of colors that I can’t see. It can see behind its own head. It can hear fast-paced qualities in its own song that I’m missing. Its vision works on a faster time scale than mine does. I suspect that it might be able to detect magnetic fields in the same way that a lot of other birds can. Yeah, here is this incredibly simple, quite mundane animal that I see on an almost daily basis, that is extraordinary in the act of doing absolutely nothing.

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You started this book and did a lot of traveling it for it pre-pandemic, but also wrote a lot of it during the pandemic. How did this shift the course of your writing?

I think in some ways the pandemic didn’t do very much other than seriously interrupt the book. The whole thing was laid out and planned. A lot of the reporting had been done before I even started writing. Writing the second half of the book, or at least the bits that I did mid-pandemic, just went by a lot quicker, because I had spent nine months cranking out one feature-length article after another. It turns out if you just do that many times in a row, it’s like a muscle that you can build.

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I got Typo during that time. It was nice having a personal, daily experience of having an animal in my life and thinking about his sensory world. Typo makes cameos throughout the book. He often solved quite gnarly transition problems, where I didn’t know how to bridge from one chapter to another. Often, just looking at what he was doing and thinking about his experience of the world helped to solve that problem.

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Writing the book, writing about a topic as joyful and as awe-inspiring as the sensory worlds of other animals, was a much, much-needed break from writing about COVID. But there is this throughline between the two topics, of empathy and perspective-taking. A lot of the pandemic coverage is my trying to get people to think about the lives and experiences of people who had a much harder time than they had, and who enjoy fewer privileges than they do. The book is about trying to get people to empathize with creatures who are very different than they are, and that does feel like a conceptual thread that connects both of those two silos of writing.

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If you learn more about the world and you find yourself motivated to try and understand it better, it gives you more of an impetus to want to protect it. We live in an age where that protection is needed, not just from things like sensory pollution, but the loss of biodiversity, climate change, and all the rest. We won’t protect a world that we don’t care about. I think it’s important to make people care.

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