An Immense World by Ed Yong reviewed

An Immense World Book Cover An Immense World
Ed Yong
Random House UK, Vintage, Bodley Head
June 30, 2022

The Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world. This book welcomes us into previously unfathomable dimensions - the world as it is truly perceived by other animals.

We encounter beetles that are drawn to fires, turtles that can track the Earth's magnetic fields, fish that fill rivers with electrical messages, and humans that wield sonar like bats. We discover that a crocodile's scaly face is as sensitive as a lover's fingertips, that the eyes of a giant squid evolved to see sparkling whales, that plants thrum with the inaudible songs of courting bugs, and that even simple scallops have complex vision. We learn what bees see in flowers, what songbirds hear in their tunes, and what dogs smell on the street. We listen to stories of pivotal discoveries in the field, while looking ahead at the many mysteries which lie unsolved.

In An Immense World, author and acclaimed science journalist Ed Yong coaxes us beyond the confines of our own senses, allowing us to perceive the skeins of scent, waves of electromagnetism, and pulses of pressure that surround us. Because in order to understand our world we don't need to travel to other places; we need to see through other eyes.

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