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OTHER-WORLDLY: The animal worlds that lie beyond our perception

A deluge of innovative research is revealing that behavior we would call intelligent if humans did it can be found in virtually every corner of the animal kingdom.

BETSY MASON: What is special about humans that sets us apart from other animals? Less than some of us would like to believe. As scientists peer more deeply into the lives of other animals, they’re finding that our fellow creatures are far more emotionally, socially, and cognitively complex than we typically give them credit for. A deluge of innovative research is revealing that behavior we would call intelligent if humans did it can be found in virtually every corner of the animal kingdom.

Already this year scientists have shown that Goffin’s cockatoos can use multiple tools at once to solve a problem, Australian Magpies will cooperate to remove tracking devices harnessed to them by scientists, and a small brown songbird can sometimes keep time better than the average professional musician — and that’s just among birds.

This pileup of fascinating findings may be at least partly responsible for an increase in people’s interest in the lives of other animals — a trend that’s reflected in an apparent uptick in books and television shows on the topic, as well as in legislation concerning other species. Public sentiment in part pushed the National Institutes of Health to stop supporting biomedical research on chimpanzees in 2015.

In Canada, an outcry led to a ban in 2019 on keeping cetaceans like dolphins and orcas in captivity. And earlier this year, the United Kingdom passed an animal welfare bill that officially recognizes that many animals are sentient beings capable of suffering, including invertebrates like octopuses and lobsters.

Many of these efforts are motivated by human empathy for animals we’ve come to see as intelligent, feeling beings like us, such as chimpanzees and dolphins. But how can we extend that concern to the millions of other species that share the planet with us?

Three recent books take on one of the major barriers to empathy for other animals: the particular way we sense and experience the world, or perceptual bias. Each of these books aims to break down our human-centered perspective by pointing out our sensory blind spots and using various strategies to illuminate the vast array of animal sensory realms that are often incredibly different from our own.

Ed Yong, a staff writer for The Atlantic and author of “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us,” points out that even the use of metaphors like “blind spots” betrays how heavily most humans depend on — and favor — the visual sense…

In “Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses,” British author Jackie Higgins covers some of the same sensory territory as Yong — even interviewing a few of the same scientists and describing the same classic experiments — but through a very different lens. Her primary interest is exploring the sensory overlap between humans and other animals. And because she’s more interested in the human experience, she avoids the deep end of Nagel’s dilemma.

After disabusing her readers of the notion that humans have just five senses — there may in fact be dozens, depending on how you count them — Higgins devotes each of her 12 chapters to a different human sense, focusing on how each one works in another species…

In “Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction,” biologist David George Haskell… delves deeply into a smaller slice of the sensory landscape: the way humans and other animals sense sound. He explores the sonic world from every angle — physiology, evolution, conservation, culture, history, philosophy. He does an admirable job describing soundscapes across the globe through words — not an easy task — and starkly lays out how those sounds are threatened. SOURCE…


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