In the enigmatic spirit of animals

By affirming its ambition “to explore their senses to better understand their lives,” Yong is true to his word. A longtime Atlantic staffer, he has an Attenborough-like knack for unearthing simple stories from the boundless mess of the natural world. A look at the eyes of scallops, for example, becomes a window through which to marvel at the dozens, if not hundreds, of wobbly eyeballs attached to this seafood staple. Yong describes the scallops’ visit to the berry with eyes like “neon blueberries”. When threatened, the creatures beat furiously to freedom, “opening and closing their shells like panicked castanets”.

A huge worldThe most revealing anecdotes are those that turn our worldview upside down and help us understand how evolutionary pressures have structured physical reality. He tells us that bees, like us, have trichromatic eyes – they perceive three primary colors. In their case, however, the light-sensitive cells are tuned to green, blue, and ultraviolet. “You might think these pollinators evolved eyes that see flowers well, but that’s not what happened,” he writes. “Their style of trichromacy evolved hundreds of millions of years before the first flowers appeared, so the latter must have evolved to match the first ones. The flowers developed colors that ideally tickle the eyes of insects.

Unlike Yong, Jackie Higgins sees the talents of animals as a lens on our own faculties. Higgins, who was a science filmmaker for the BBC before becoming an author, centers each chapter of Sensitive about an animal’s remarkable sensory adaptation, but takes anecdotal diversions, à la Oliver Sacks, to explore cases at the edge of human capacity. To be inspired by The Naked Monkey– Desmond Morris’ mix of zoology and hippie-era ethnography that interpreted human behavior as the result of a speculative evolutionary grand narrative – she values ​​the study of animals as “a mirror we can hold up to satisfy self-obsession,” adding that “it offers another perspective on why we humans look, act, and feel the way we do.

“We don’t see with our eyes, but with our brains. Likewise, we don’t hear with our ears alone, smell with our nose, taste with our tongue, or feel with our finger sensors alone.

Paul Bach-y-Rita

There’s the peacock mantis shrimp, which has the most complex eyes discovered to date (with 12 types of photoreceptors out of our three), and the star-nosed mole, which packs six times as many touch sensors into its flared snout. a centimeter wide than you have in a whole hand. Each chapter sheds light on a meaning, so that in considering color vision, she associates the example of the shrimp with those of humans struggling with their own equivalent sense: the inhabitants of Pingelap Atoll, for example , “the island of the color-blind,” and an anonymous Englishwoman, codenamed cDa29, who has a fourth type of photoreceptor that allows her to see millions of colors invisible to the rest of us.

Reading Higgins, we spend more time with an organ that seems deliberately unprobed by Yong: the brain. For her, the brain is everywhere, necessarily as “the most important sensory organ of our body”. Paraphrasing the American neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita, Higgins writes: “We do not see with our eyes, but with our brains. Likewise, we don’t hear with our ears alone, smell with our nose, taste with our tongue, or feel with our finger sensors alone. In Sensitive, we learn that, distributed throughout the human brain, we can find a “sensory homunculus”, a tactile map of the body with oversized areas corresponding to our hands and lips, reflecting the density of tactile sensors in these areas. There are animal equivalents – “mouseunculus”, “raccoonunculus”, “platypunculus”, and star-nosed “moleunculus” – which also represent the primacy of these species’ sensitive whiskers and noses. Indeed, the most touching sections of the book come closest to the mind, such as the chapter on the “slow track” of the skin, the tactile system that responds to the caress. The system is found in social mammals, including ourselves, but also vampire bats, which have been observed donating blood to each other after benevolent licks. It’s a rare sense that doesn’t communicate so much information as mood: “By attuning us to tenderness, Higgins writes, it transforms touch into interpersonal glue and the skin into a social organ”.

ARI LILOAN

By this, we learn that most of what makes up the perceptual world is built in the darkness of our head rather than in the sensory organs themselves, whose role is limited to translating stimuli into electrical signals. Yet while Higgins and Yong conclude that we can truly understand a great deal about what it is to be another creature, we wonder about this central organ, having failed to build a clear picture of the brain of another species – its structure and functioning – nor elucidated much of what is going on inside: its cognition or thought. Enter Philip Ball The Book of Spirits. For Ball, the senses are just a way to access a wide-ranging exploration that begins with the animal spirit and goes through consciousness, artificial intelligence, extraterrestrials and free will. His book asks: What kinds of minds exist, or could exist, beyond our own? Ball, a prolific science writer and former editor of the journal Nature, also launches into a story of Sacks, who recalls leaning his big, bearded face against the window of a mother orangutan’s enclosure at the zoo. of Toronto. As each placed a hand against opposite sides of the glass, Sacks wrote, the two furry primates shared a “snapshot, mutual recognition and sense of kinship.”

While it’s unclear if we can know what it’s like to be a bat, it seemed obvious to Sacks that what it’s like to be an orangutan isn’t only knowable, but something we can easily guess. Ball’s exploration of the minds of others negotiates this path between solipsism – the skeptical philosophical position that none of us can know anything beyond our own minds – and anthropomorphism, which naively projects our own qualities on non-humans. According to him, humans, bats and orangutans are just three examples in a “space of possible minds” that could also include AI, aliens and angels.

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