Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s exuberant book of essays, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, & Other Astonishments, has unlocked protective passion for nature among readers since its release in 2020. In the book’s thirty dazzling essays, Nezhukumatathil weaves love stories about being a daughter, a partner, a mother, and a teacher with reverence for a delightful catalogue of wild animals and plants and what they give us: their ability to expand our imaginations, to connect us with others, to unearth memories, to break habits of thinking, to teach us lessons, and to simply leave us awed that we co-exist with such wildly magical creatures as frogs and fireflies. In this episode, Nezhukumatathil reads from her collection, tells us about animals who have shaped her experiences and understanding of the world, and discusses the power of wonder and astonishment to expand our empathy.
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.
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.”
During his travels in South America at the close of the 18th century, the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt came upon a parrot speaking the words of a lost Indian tribe. The encounter inspired our guest, acclaimed author and New York Times Magazine writer Charles Siebert, to imagine the echoes of human language that might persist, in nonhuman voices, once we are gone. We speak with Siebert about his reporting on humans’ wonder for and wounding of animals, the reach of metaphor, and what he discovered in the gaze of a chimpanzee named Roger.