In 2013, a sperm whale washed up dead on Spain’s southern coast. In its ruptured digestive tract, scientists found an entire flattened greenhouse that once grew wintertime tomatoes, complete with plastic tarps, hoses, two flower pots, and a spray canister. The whale also contained an ice cream tub, mattress parts, a carafe, and a coat hanger. And that was just the obvious human refuse. Our toxic chemicals build up in whale blubber over years such that the concentration of pollutants in some whale bodies now far exceeds that of the water surrounding them. In whales’ vastness, the reach of humanity’s destruction is magnified — but so too is the potential of our compassion. In her genius debut book, Fathoms: The World in the Whale, writer Rebecca Giggs asks: Who are we to whales? What does it mean to pollute not just places, but animals? What can understanding our ecological crises through the perspectives of other creatures teach us about ourselves? In this episode, we speak with Giggs about the astonishing ways in which whales and humans live in each other’s wakes and the enormous power of the world’s largest mammals to expand our own moral capacity.
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.
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 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.
Yale Divinity School Professor John Hare discusses the relationship between philosophy and religion and working for the U.S. government on human rights issues.