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 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.”
In honor of the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest TV shows ever made, we’re replaying our very first episode of the podcast with a new introduction.
Terry Winter worked his way up The Sopranos writing staff to become one of the three key contributors to the series. Terry went on to a 20 year career at HBO, creating and showrunning two additional series after the end of The Sopranos. He was also nominated for an Oscar for writing The Wolf of Wall Street.
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For decades, researchers have debated whether or not animals make friends. “Friends” — the taboo “f word” — was generally put in quotes if it was used at all. But if you study the social networks of elephants, whales and other animals, it is clear that they have friends just like we do, according to Dr. Nicholas Christakis. Friendship, like other societal characteristics, evolved independently and convergently across species.
Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science, Dr. Christakis is a leading Yale sociologist and physician known for his research on human social networks and biosocial science. In this episode, he speaks with us about the ancient origins and modern implications of our common animality and his new book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.
In March of 2016, a group of scientists reported a startling discovery from the forests of central Japan: syntax, the property of speech that enables it to express limitless meanings, was not unique to human languages. It had been observed in the vocal system of a bird. In her acclaimed new novel The Study of Animal Languages, published last month by Viking-Penguin and written by When We Talk About Animals co-host Lindsay Stern, a biologist named Prue conducts a similar experiment in her laboratory at a New England liberal arts college. Like the actual study, hers is touted as evidence that animals have yet another capacity we assumed made us unique. But in a speech at the heart of the book, where Prue announces her findings, she suggests that the study teaches us more about ourselves than it does about the animal in question. We speak with Lindsay about the limitations of conscience, the spiritual costs of the Anthropocene, and fiction’s capacity to explore the motives behind our search for animal minds.
Dale has written some of the most memorable and enjoyable comedies of the last few decades, including two of the WGA’s 101 Funniest Screenplays Of All Time. From My Cousin Vinny to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to Ruthless People, Dale’s scripts poke fun at the class system, and champion the underdog against whatever ruling system is in place. These are laugh out loud comedies that aren’t afraid to be smart. Join Aaron and Dale for a wide ranging conversation about Dale’s process and career.
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.