Inside the enigmatic minds of animals
The emerald gem wasp’s extraordinary arrival into the world-bursting from the body a zombified, cockroach it had eaten from the inside–is one of nature’s most horrifying miracles. The mother wasp, a parasite measuring an inch in length, attacked her prey once with her two-millimeter-long stinger, injecting sedative chemicals into her roach’s thorax to give her larvae the best start in its life. She then stabs again, this time into the victim’s head, slicing through muscle and digestive tubes to inject the potion of poison in the exact spot of the tiny brain.
This turns her victim into a willing pawn. The expectant mother can now lead her insect on a leash by biting off the antenna tip. She lays an egg on the roach’s leg and leaves her young with a mound of still-living flesh twice her size. The larva will eventually pupate within it and then erupt through its exoskeleton when it is mature. Charles Darwin witnessed the climactic eruption from flesh of a wasp. It was enough to make him question God’s existence. He couldn’t help but be amazed at the complexity of this reproductive horror show.
Today’s remarkable new survey on animal perception, An Incredible World: How Animal Senses Reveal Hidden Realms Around Us ,, Ed Yong explains how we can see much deeper into the process that Darwin could have imagined. Under an electron microscope, you will see that the jewel wasp’s bee stinger is filled with tiny bumps and pits. These cells are mechanoreceptors sensitive to the smallest details of touch and texture and chemoreceptors that sense taste and smell. Although the exact purpose of the stinger’s smell receptors remains to be determined, tests have shown that its mechanoreceptors make it an accurately calibrated measuring instrument. The mother wasp puts her stinger in her head and “she can feel the distinctive feeling of a roach’s mind.” An Intense World has taken pride of place among a growing collection of books about the inner worlds of animals. These include Sentient , by Jackie Higgins and The Book of Minds , Philip Ball.
We feel a duty to show empathy to our non-human neighbors more than ever. In the last three years, more than 30 countries have formally recognized other animals–including gorillas, lobsters, crows, and octopuses–as sentient beings. Yong, Higgins and Ball all capture the key to these developments: a booming field in experimental research challenging the long-held view that animals are not conscious or cognitively complex. Western science used to treat animals as automata, guided only by instinct and hardwiring. Recent decades have seen researchers attempt to understand complex behavioral phenomena such as bee language and vampire bat altruism. The Earth Species Project in San Francisco, founded by Reid Hoffman, is a translation tool for trans-species. It has been supported by LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman. Many tech professionals now believe that talking to animals is possible, something once reserved for Dr. Dolittle-like children’s stories or animist myths.
What would they say? The question philosopher Thomas Nagel posed in his famous 1974 paper on consciousness–“What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”–still lingers. Ball, Higgins, Yong and Higgins each claim to be able to discredit Nagel’s argument that such animals have experiences beyond our grasp. We are left wondering if we are really close to bridging this species gap, even though all three have a wealth of fascinating research that gives us glimpses into the lives and habits of animals.
In 1909, zoologist Jakob von Uexkull made the then-radical proposal that each animal possesses Umwelt, its own perceptual world, constructed from the information that its senses provide. The Umwelt of an eyeless, body heat-sensing tick may be very different from the one of a blue whale. It can tune in to a variety of water-transmitted signals as well as infrasonic music that can travel thousands of miles. In An Impossible World , Yong uses von Uexkull’s framework. He sets up his book as a sensory travelogue through the worlds and animals of various animals, an “attempt at step inside their Umwelten.”
Yong shows that many of our nonhuman friends, even the smallest bugs, have moments of richness that we don’t see. Block-yellow flowers such as daffodils can be flamed and streaked in painterly ultraviolet brushstrokes, while silverweed’s colors are vivid and unimaginable to many birds and insects. Plants can be seen and smelled from far away. Bumblebees can sense the “invisible electric halos” of plants, which is an electromagnetic field that each green shoot emits. This force field is emitted by tiny hairs that make their fuzz.
In the last three years, more than 30 countries have formally recognized other animals–including gorillas, lobsters, crows, and octopuses–as sentient beings.
Such miniature worlds quake with life. Unnoticeable to us, plants’ springy stems hum with “haunting, mesmerizing”, songs that are tapped out by ants and other invertebrates who climb on them. Airborne audio is based on size. Larger bodies sound hollow and smaller animals sound weedy. Cicadas moo like cows, and crickets make the sound of chainsaws.
While we learn about pit vipers’ heat vision, and the sensory electrical field emitted from the black ghost knifefish sensory field, it is often the most familiar creatures who reveal the most amazing sensory talents. The nostrils of a Labrador guide him down the street. They create a stream that emits a constant odor, and swirl particles into a vortex. These smells create a ghostly environment, where objects from the past reside. If you were able to lie down, you could hear their ultrasonic canary-like songs.
Reflecting back on our own sensory abilities, Yong writes of humans: “Our Umwelt is still limited; it just doesn’t feel that way. It feels all-encompassing to us. It is all we know, and so it is easy to mistake it for all that there is to know.” Yong sees Umwelt, like von Uexkull. All animals have a partial and concocted view of reality created by our evolutionary history. This history has been developed, like the jewel bee’s stinger through generations of predation, mating, and other activities. An Immeasurable World aims to bring other animals’ experiences to parity with human’s and dispel the notion that humans’ experience is unique.
“We do not see with our eyes, but with our brains. Similarly, we do not solely hear with our ears, smell with our noses, taste with our tongues, or feel with the sensors in our fingers.”
There’s the peacock mantis shrimp, which has the most complex eyes so far discovered (with 12 types of photoreceptors to our three), and the star-nosed mole, which packs six times more touch sensors into its centimeter-wide splayed snout than you have in an entire hand. Each chapter spotlights one sense, so that in considering color vision, she pairs the example of the shrimp with those of humans grappling with their own equivalent sense: residents of the Pingelap Atoll, for example, the “island of the color-blind,” and an anonymous Englishwoman, code-named cDa29, who has a fourth type of photoreceptor that allows her to see millions of colors invisible to the rest of us.
Higgins allows us to spend more time with an organ that Yong deliberately left unprobed: the brain. Higgins believes that the brain is everywhere and that it is “our body’s all-important sensory organ.” Higgins says, “We don’t see with our eyes, we see with our brains.” Similarly, we do not solely hear with our ears, smell with our noses, taste with our tongues, or feel with the sensors in our fingers.” In Sentient, we learn that spread across the human brain we can find a “sensory homunculus,” a touch map of the body with supersize areas corresponding to our hands and lips, reflecting the density of touch sensors in these zones. There are animal equivalents–“mouseunculus,” “raccoonunculus,” “platypunculus,” and star-nosed “moleunculus”–that likewise represent the primacy of those species’ sensitive whiskers and noses. The most touching sections of the book are those that touch the mind the most, such as the chapter on skin’s slow lane, which describes the touch system that responds when touched. This system is found in social mammals such as us, but also vampire bats. They have been observed giving each other blood after sharing caressing licks. It is a rare sense that communicates not so much information as mood: “By tuning us to tenderness,” Higgins writes, “it transforms touch into interpersonal glue and the skin into a social organ.”
Through this, we learn that most of what makes up the perceptual world is constructed in the darkness of our head rather than in the sense organs themselves, whose role is limited to translating stimuli into electrical signals. Higgins and Yong conclude we can understand a lot more about other creatures than we do about ourselves. We are left wondering about this central organ. We don’t have a clear picture about any other species’ brain, its structure or functioning, nor can we explain much about what’s happening inside it, such as cognition and thought. Enter Philip Ball’s The Book of Minds . Ball believes that senses are only one way into a broad-horizoned exploration that starts with animals and continues through consciousness, artificial intelligence, extraterrestrials and free will. His book explores the question: What types of minds exist or could exist beyond our own? Ball, a prolific science writer who was also an editor at Nature, began his book with a story by Sacks. He recalled pressing his large, bearded head against the glass to the enclosure of an orangutan mom at the Toronto Zoo. Sacks wrote that the two primates felt an “instant, mutual recognition” and a sense of kinship Even though it was not clear if they could know what it was like to be a bat. However, Sacks believed it was obvious that we can intuitively know what it’s like to be an orangutan. Ball’s exploration into the minds of others navigates this path between solipsism (the skeptical philosophical position that no one can know more than our own mind) and anthropomorphism which naively projects our qualities onto nonhumans. He said that humans, bats, orangutans, are three examples of a “Space of Possible Minds” which could also include aliens, AI, and angels.
Discovering one’s own brain is like discovering some alien technology: “With its 86 billion neurons and 1,000 trillion connections, [it] is the most complex object we know of, yet its logic is not one for which other phenomena prepare us.”
Rather than posing binary questions–“Is this animal sentient? Is a chatbot conscious Ball proposes to map potential minds by their abilities. This is illustrated in graphs that plot thinking and processing, from octopuses, to Roomba robot vacuums, using a pair of axes. Christof Koch, a neuroscientist, has created a graph that compares “intelligence” and “consciousness.” Murray Shanahan, a computer scientist has done the same with “human-likeness” and “capacity to consciousness.” Ball hopes to map out other minds that have qualities similar to ours and sometimes even surpass them. This is what chess-playing AIs do.
Ball’s sprawling narrative explains why Yong may have felt it prudent not to spend too much time with the brain. The eye was Darwin’s favorite example of the dazzling complexity of the theory of evolution. The eye is a device that can be understood by all, “including lenses to focus light, a moveable aperture and photosensitive tissues to record images, colour discrimination, and many other parts.” You could also say the same about the ears or other sense organs. Ball writes, “But the brain?” It makes no sense. To the eye it is a barely differentiated mass of cauliflower tissue with no moving parts and the consistency of blancmange, and yet out of it has come Don Quixote and Parsifal, the theory of general relativity and The X Factor, tax returns and genocide.” Discovering one’s own brain is like discovering some alien technology: “With its 86 billion neurons and 1,000 trillion connections, [it] is the most complex object we know of, yet its logic is not one for which other phenomena prepare us.” It is not for nothing that the question of how conscious experience arises out of all this mushy matter is known as the “hard problem of consciousness.”
It would be harsh to criticize Ball for not coming to many clear answers. Ball is at his best when resolving the question and analyzing the rash inferences that plague AI and animal research. Ball examines trans-species translation in one section. He tells the story about Denise Herzing, a marine biologist who taught a dolphin pod how to associate a set whistles with sargassum, one of their favorite toys. Herzing claimed that the dolphins were able to understand the “word” and used it later in the wild to convey the same meaning.
This attempt to speak “Dolphinese” raises many questions. Is this a language like the ones we humans use? Is there more than one sense involved in the creation of dolphins’ meanings? Humans combine words and body language. At least since the 1960s, scientists have believed that dolphins as well as some apes have language capabilities–Koko, a gorilla who learned and communicated with some hand gestures, being the most famous. Today, we are more cautious than ever, afraid of anthropomorphism and too attached to human language acquisition.
Ball argues that we should be just as skeptical about the “philosophical deadend” of solipsism. He also cautions against those who rush to project humanlike experiences onto animals, chimps, and–like a recently fired Google engineer–quite primitive chatbots. Ball’s deep dive into the problems associated with ascribing conscious mind to others is right next to Yong and Higgins celebrations. These celebrations instead find purpose in imagining how the world might look if other living beings could tell us what we see.
Matthew Ponsford is a freelance journalist based in London.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.