Philosopher and musician David Rothenberg has spent decades collecting and studying the calls of birds and whales. In the early 2000s, he began playing along with them, taking his clarinet and saxophone to some of the furthest corners of the planet. The result is a new form of music that invites us to question where art ends and science begins. We speak with David about his unorthodox project, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and what it’s like to accompany the sounds and songs of beings who may vanish from the earth.
Category Archives: When We Talk About Animals
In the 1970s, scientists proposed what has become known as the Gaia Hypothesis: the idea that earth is best understood not as a passive substrate or background to life but as a life form in its own right. Our guest, journalist Ferris Jabr, believes the time has come to revive that idea. To understand how sentient creatures have evolved on this planet, he suggests, is not only to grasp that animals—human and otherwise—are offshoots of an evolutionary tree; it’s to see the tree itself as one element of a dynamic, interrelated organism. We speak with Jabr about the art of science reporting, the limits of life, and what the white cliffs of Dover are made of.
Author and sailor David Barrie voyaged around the globe and through scientific literature to learn about the awe-inducing and still mysterious navigational powers of animals. Barrie writes of mysteries such as how birds employ “map and compass” type navigation, how Box jellyfish use some of their twenty-four eyes to keep track of trees and other above-water landmarks, how sweat bees can detect and find their ways home using single photons of light, and how Sahara desert ants measure their turns and count their steps in a process humans call “dead reckoning” — in addition to relying on visual landmarks, patterns of light invisible to the human eye, wind micro-vibrations, scent, optic flow, and the earth’s magnetic field. Animals’ navigational feats reveal an extraordinary awareness of the environment around them — a form of perception that is often far different from our own. In his new book, Supernavigators, Barrie describes the navigational intelligences of other species, which often exceed our wildest imaginations, and issues a call for humans, too often “blinded by vision,” to better respect and celebrate these animals’ abilities in an era when human behavior is increasingly impeding them.
Film director and producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite did not set out to make a film that would force a national moral reckoning over how we keep whales in captivity, slash the profits of Sea World, and make her the unexpected enemy number one of a multi-billion dollar industry. But that’s what happened. Her acclaimed film Blackfish tells the thrilling and heartbreaking story of Tilikum, an orca whale who killed three people while in captivity. Shot on a budget of just $76,000 and released in 2010, Blackfish has been viewed by more than 60 million people and has become one of the most impactful documentary films of all time. In the six years since its release, Sea World has ended its orca breeding program and pledged to phase out orca shows all together by the end of 2019. We speak with Gabriela about the making of Blackfish, the hazards of keeping cetaceans captive, and how her film catapulted her to the frontier of marine animal activism.
“Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us,” Robert Macfarlane once wrote. “Certain books, though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates.” Macfarlane’s writing has done this for us and for millions of readers. It has shifted our climates for the better, deepened our sympathies, expanded our understanding of and attention to our moral and physical landscapes, and reminded us of the stakes of being alive. In this episode, Macfarlane joins us to speak about his new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey. In the book, Macfarlane explores how we humans shape value across expanses of “deep time” — geological time in which the units of measurement are eons and epochs, not days or years — and asks: Are we being good ancestors? “When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert,” he writes. “New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.”
In 1950, a physicist posed the question that has come to be known as the Fermi Paradox: given the high mathematical probability that other intelligent life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, why is there no evidence that they exist? In his blazingly original paper, “Radio Astronomy as Epistemology,” our guest, philosopher Anthony Weston, formulates a solution. What we take to be the silence of the universe, he writes, may teach us more about ourselves—and the challenges of receptivity to nonhuman minds in general—than about the prevalence of other life. The reason the universe appears to offer no evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, Weston suggests, may be that we are paying the wrong kind of attention. We speak with Dr. Weston about self-fulfilling prophesies, the limits of animal intelligence tests, and how to cultivate what he calls “receptive listening.”
In 2007, our guest, Fabrice Schnoller, was sailing off the coast of Mauritius when he had an encounter that would change his life and open a new frontier in marine biology. As his boat neared land, huge pillars of steam burst out of the water. When Schnöller jumped in to investigate, he was overwhelmed by a crashing, creaking sound. It was the echolocation clicks of sperm whales, the bearers of the largest brains ever known to have existed on Earth. In addition to helping whales navigate, some evidence suggests that these clicks also function as a language. To investigate this possibility, Schnöller founded DAREWIN, the first initiative devoted to studying whale click communication and exposing it to the wider public. In the nine years since the project launched, Schnoller and his team have amassed the largest database of sperm whale vocalizations in history — all collected non-invasively, through free-diving. We speak with Schnöller about DAREWIN’s work, its pioneering methodology, and what it’s like to be X-rayed by a whale.
In the spring of 1963, when our guest Dr. Thomas Seeley was not quite 11 years old, he lived — as he still does today — in a wooded stream valley just east of Ithaca, New York. One day, he heard a loud buzzing sound and saw a bread-truck-sized cloud of honey bees swarming an ancient black walnut tree near his family’s house. From a distance, he watched as the bees took up residence in a cavity in the tree. Why, he wondered, did the bees choose that particular tree cavity for their home? Humans have lived with bees for our entire existence as a species, but the vast majority of studies have focused on how bees live in managed colonies, whether the clay cylinders used to keep bees in the Iron Age or the white boxes of neighborhood beekeepers. But here, in the black walnut tree, were wild bees — living without human supervision or human understanding. Their lives present great mysteries. That 11-year-old grew up to become the world’s leading authority on honey bees, and a magnificently gifted writer about their worlds. Dr. Seeley joins us to discuss his research about wild honey bees’ behavior, social lives and ecology, and his new book: “The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honeybee in the Wild.”
Bears, like other carnivores, are typically cast as unthinking, emotionless killers. But the late naturalist Charlie Russell believed this tragic misperception hides the truth about who bears really are. Charlie’s life story changed how humans perceive grizzly bears. While other scientists and naturalists were studying bears from a distance, tranquilizing them and tagging them with trackers, Charlie chose to live, intimately and without harm, among bears for decades in far east Russia and in North America. His objectives were as different as his methods. “Biologists know a lot—how many calories a bear needs every day, their numbers, and so on. This is good information, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about who a bear is,” he told our guest. “I’ve never wanted to know about bears, I’ve only wanted to understand them.” In her much anticipated new book, “Talking with Bears” (Rocky Mountain Books, fall 2019), Dr. Gay Bradshaw tells Russell’s story, built on a decade of conversations about and two lifetimes devoted to searching for the truth of who animals really are. An internationally renowned expert on animal trauma and a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, Dr. Bradshaw has spent her life exploring the minds, emotions and lives of animals, and pushing and inspiring science and society to better understand them.
In the United States today, 10 billion land animals are raised and killed for food annually. That’s over 19,000 animals per minute. About 1.1 million animals during the length of this podcast. Yet as far as federal law is concerned, farmed animals do not exist. They are not counted as “animals” under the country’s primary federal animal protection law, the Animal Welfare Act. Their status is finally changing at the state level, thanks to the remarkable work of our guest, corporate lawyer and activist David Wolfson and his colleagues. We speak with David about nonhuman personhood, about the importance of teaching in driving long-term social change, and about how he’s worked to make animals legible to the law.