From tiny cowries to giant clams, seashells have gripped human imaginations since time immemorial. In her magnificent new book, The Sound of the Sea, journalist Cynthia Barnett tells the epic history of humanity’s interactions with shells and the soft-bodied animals who make them. These stories of how we have treasured, traded, plundered, and coveted shells reveal much about who we are and who we’ve been, both good and bad. Barnett’s deep research ranges from the awe-inspiring “great cities of shell” of the Calusa people in Florida, to the use of cowrie shells as currency in the Atlantic slave trade, to the decimation of mollusk populations due to climate change and over-harvesting. In this episode, we speak with Barnett about what she describes as our “world of shell,” what shells can tell us about our past, how they have shaped our present, and how the future of shells and their animal makers is tied to our own.
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.
Born in Paris to an African-American GI and a French woman at the end of World War II, Dr. Daniel Pauly rose from a difficult and extraordinarily unusual childhood in Europe to become one of the most daring, productive, and influential fisheries scientists in the history of the field — and the first to illuminate the global extent and significance of overfishing. A professor and principal investigator of the Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Pauly has devoted his career to studying and documenting the impact of fisheries on marine ecosystems and advocating for cutting-edge policies to address it. The software, scientific tools, and methods he and his research team developed have transformed understanding of how humans are impacting oceans. His research makes very clear that fish are in global peril — and so, in turn, are we. If our species manages to reverse course and avoid the “watery horror show,” as he calls it, for which we’re on track, it will be thanks in large part to his and his colleagues’ vision, courage, and decades of tireless work. In this episode, we speak with Dr. Pauly about the “toxic triad” that characterizes modern fisheries (catches are underreported, science is ignored, and the environment is blamed when fish populations collapse as a result), how “shifting baseline syndrome” — a term he coined — results in slow and inadequate responses to overfishing and climate change, why fish are shrinking and struggling to breathe as oceans warm, and why we need to end high seas fishing and government subsidies of international fishing fleets.
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.