Books (& turtles)

And the best book of 2023 is … The Sounds of Life, by Karen Bakker. It’s technically a 2022 book, but late 2022 and so good it’s still the best of 2023.

It’s in some sense a book about the evolution of bioacoustics, the science of listening to the rest of the environment. There are chapters on corals (polyps come back to reefs that sound like home – and playing these soundscapes can help regenerate damaged reefs), honeybees (flowers generate nectar when they hear bees), dolphins (who address each other by name), plants, and more.

But more importantly, it’s a book that subtly puts other species on the same plane of personality as ours. Ed Yong’s Immense World has more detail about animal senses – magnetic fields, 3-D worlds sensed through the star-shaped nose of a mole, colors we humans will never know. Martha Nussbaum’s Justice for Animals has a more explicit moral theory of humans and other species in interaction. James Bridle’s Ways of Being delves more into the information and intelligence possibilities across species. But Karen’s book just strides right in with a starting assumption that the beings that we now listen to have their own lives and perspectives and communities that we should consider ourselves lucky to learn about. It’s woven into the chapters, not as a contention or an argument, just a basic starting foundation.

A few matter-of-fact passages:

On Bats: “‘Interspecies communication may be intriguing to some humans’, [Knornschild] says, but perhaps not that interesting to other species.’ Bats … may not recognize humans as being capable of communication; much like humans are not innately enabled to sense biochemical signals in forests.”

On what we’ve learned now that we realize that turtles make sounds: “Turtles do not exhibit behaviors that humans (as mammals) find innately social – such as grooming or feeding their young. Reptile social traits are different: sharing a resource like a crevice, basking together in close proximity, associating with young after birth, swimming together to a mutually agreed upon destination.” [Italics mine, since I like to swim too.]

Unfortunately Karen passed away in 2023, but she has a new book, Gaia’s Web, coming out in 2024 that looks like it might pick up on this trajectory.