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.
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.
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.”