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.
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.
“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 mountainous regions of the world, there are human societies that use whistled languages to transmit and understand a potentially unlimited number of meanings over great distances. While in graduate school, Dr. Diana Reiss began to wonder: If humans can encode great amounts of information in whistles, perhaps much more is going on with the whistles of dolphins than we once thought. Reiss
is an internationally renowned expert on dolphin intelligence and a Professor of Psychology at Hunter College in New York City. With colleagues, she was the first to demonstrate
that dolphins can recognize themselves in mirrors, a capability once thought to be unique to humans, and has taught dolphins to communicate with underwater interactive keyboards. In this episode, she describes how she got early support for her work from SETI
researchers, John Lilly’s complex role in shaping scientific and public interest in dolphins, the parallels between dolphin and human whistle languages, the importance of anecdotal experiences in science, and her advocacy work to end dolphins hunts in Japan.
In their book, Love in the Anthropocene, our guest, the environmental philosopher Dale Jamieson, and his co-author Bonnie Nadzam invite us to imagine a not-too-distant-future in which our technologies have continued to transform the face of the planet. In this world, the “sixth extinction” is long underway. Like the cities of today, rivers, lakes, forests, oceans, and fields are curated and managed by humans. Other animals remain only insofar as their existence contributes to human enjoyment. Most of them are bioengineered. We speak with Jamieson about the spiritual costs of this “narcissist’s playground,” and what we can do to preempt it.
What is it like to be another creature? What is it like to see, smell, hear, taste and feel the world as a different animal? Our guest today, the spectacularly imaginative writer and explorer Dr. Charles Foster wanted to find out. So, he got down on all fours and tried his best to do just that, living for weeks at a time as a badger, an otter, an urban fox, a deer and a swift. In this episode, Dr. Foster speaks about his adventures in non-humanness, how inhabiting the sensory world of other animals expanded his empathy, the shamanic quality of good nature writing, and his ambition to use language to subvert language itself. His explorations of mind and body are chronicled in his daring, hilarious and award-winning book, “Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide.”
Conversations with thinkers whose work has challenged us to rethink our place in the animal kingdom. Subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud.