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Reviews for An Immense World

by Ed Yong

Kirkus
Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

An ingenious account of how living organisms perceive the world. In his 1974 essay, “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that other animals experience a world utterly foreign to us, one nearly impossible to describe. In this follow-up to I Contain Multitudes, Yong, a staff reporter for the Atlantic who won a Pulitzer in 2021 for his reporting on Covid-19, mostly follows the traditional popular science format (travel the world, interview experts), but he takes a different, realistic, and utterly fascinating approach, emphasizing that every organism perceives only a tiny slice of the world accessible to its senses. A tick searching for blood is exquisitely sensitive to body heat, the touch of hair, and the odor of butyric acid from skin. The tick doesn’t willfully ignore the surrounding plants and animals; it doesn’t know that they exist. This involves the zoological term umwelt, the German word for environment that refers to what an animal can sense: its perceptual world. The human umwelt includes excellent vision, tolerable hearing, mediocre smell (but better than dog enthusiasts claim), some chemical sensitivity (mostly in the nose and taste buds), a touch of echolocation, and no ability to detect electromagnetic fields. In a dozen chapters, Yong delivers entertaining accounts of how animals both common and exotic sense the world as well as the often bizarre organs that enable them to do so. “There are animals with eyes on their genitals, ears on their knees, noses on their limbs, and tongues all over their skin,” writes the author. “Starfish see with the tips of their arms, and sea urchins with their entire bodies. The star-nosed mole feels around with its nose, while the manatee uses its lips.” Building on Aristotle’s traditional five senses, Yong adds expert accounts of 20th-century discoveries of senses for echoes, electricity, and magnetism as well as perceptions we take for granted, including color, pain, and temperature. One of the year’s best popular natural histories. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

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