An Immense World by Ed Yong
WOW – Ed Yong, author and science journalist, takes us on a tour of senses and how the animal kingdom widely has developed and used senses. The introductory chapter of An Immense World got my attention very well. The idea of a room with many occupants of different species each with different primary senses. The range of what would be perceived by very varied species is remarkable and thought provoking. The author opens with some thoughts on the approach of this book. The idea is to avoid comparisons and “ranking”. This does make sense for many reasons really. There are very widely differing habitats and difficulties in designing experiments when we don’t have much of an understanding of the senses we are trying to test.
Throw in the difficulties of trying to decide just what senses there actually are and how to define and you get some feeling for the complexities being tackled in An Immense World. I did like the quote from Proust – “”not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes”. It felt appropriate.
I found the journey I was taken on was fascinating – almost to an overwhelming degree. When I’m reading a book to review I generally read just that book continuously. This one I took breaks from. In part there was just so much to process here (it wasn’t a subject I knew much about). This is not a criticism of the book however. It is written in a very accessible way for something quite so complex.
While I mentioned that the book started with the idea that it was not going to make comparisons and ranking of senses I do think it “failed” on the comparisons aspect. However it would be virtually impossible to write this book about senses within a species without referring to the senses that are predominant in another species. I didn’t find that this bothered me.
It’s hard to come up with one or two favourite topics in this book – there were just so many for me. The sheer sensitivity of some animal senses just blew me away. That owls have asymmetric ears that are accurate to 2 degrees. That otters and seals can track the “wake” left by fishes from 200 yards away. That birds hear bird song very differently from us and that the song varies in ways we simply cannot hear. That turtles have inbuilt location senses that are remarkable. There is simply so much in here to be fascinated by.
I found the last chapter is quite brief but very interesting. It did feel slightly out of sync with the rest of the book. It concerns the way we disrupt animal senses in some quite dramatic fashions. For me it was a subject that could have had more space devoted to it – maybe another book!
An Immense World is really not a book to rush. It deserves time to be taken over it and will reward the interested reader amply. For me the fact that in most cases our senses are relatively poor was an overarching aspect of this. Related to that is the fact that, certainly in the past, we have attempted to judge animals senses by what we think they might be like. This is simply so far from the mark in so many cases as to emphasize how little we know and understand about this world we inhabit and abuse. This is a fascinating insight into the diversity of animal senses – I’d happily recommend it to anyone with any interest in the subject.
Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review