Sentient, by Jackie Higgins book review

Higgins likens the star-nosed mole to the experience of blind Turkish artist Esref Armagan, who only has to touch an object to be able to paint its likeness, then examines how each performs their remarkable feats.

“Sentient” is a fascinating exploration of animal and human senses – going well beyond the five defined by Aristotle. Higgins’ cast includes a peacock mantis shrimp that helps illuminate the way we see color, a great gray owl that helps explain how we hear, and a giant peacock that helps us understand our sense of desire.

How relevant are all these marvels to our daily lives, the Philistines might ask, beyond the noble mission of dazzling us with the splendor of ourselves and our savage neighbours?

Throughout “Sentient,” Higgins weaves together the perceptions of the human senses, the larger animal context of our sensory equipment, and the passion of the scientists who painstakingly unearth and decipher such discoveries. High-tech equipment facilitates such investigations, but early scientists must, for example, lie on their backs inside a colony of vampire bats to observe how these creatures transmit to their sick or orphaned companions. the vital blood they siphoned off from others. mammals. Discovering this mythical level selflessness was physically miserable. “I have often made researchers leave by shouting”, admits a scientist.

Higgins doesn’t draw analogies between humans and other animals as a mere narrative gimmick. She uses them to enlighten the vast community of which we are members. From grooming bats to toddler vampires, for example, Higgins moves on to examine the human need for our many senses of touch:

“As our world becomes more averse to touch than at any time in our history, as the act of a touch becomes politicized and teachers are urged to refrain from close contact with children, as we we lean towards driving our relationships online and older people are meant to silently endure an epidemic of loneliness, as we socially distance in hopes of quelling global pandemics, scientific evidence warns us to ignore this sentiment at our peril It is not simply our grip on reality, but the feeling that, more than anything else, makes us who we are.

Crucial in scientific writing, as in poetry, are clarity and proper analogy. To fully understand how an owl’s face shape channels sound waves into its ears, Higgins reminds us that we can hear better simply by putting a hand around one ear – or, if we prefer to use technology, by using a Victorian ear trumpet. . To emphasize the sensitivity of the star-nosed mole’s snout, Higgins says, “Imagine having six times the sensitivity of your entire hand concentrated on a single fingertip.”

Higgins has written, directed and produced science films for National Geographic, the BBC, PBS’s “Nova” and the Discovery Channel. Like the running cheetah on the cover of “Sentient”, she has adapted to her habitat with elegance and efficiency. She stands modestly in the background, but orchestrates every frame and juxtaposition like a director, adding to a catchy take on life.

Keats once joked that Isaac Newton “destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism”. But what could be more poetic than the raw facts of nature? In Higgins’ hands, they don’t even look raw; they feel elegant, intertwined, meaningful. The rainbow of perception and behavior is no less glorious when it passes through the prism of scientific attention, and it lights up in new ways.

A hungry sense of wonder requires a diet of nutritious facts, or it will gorge itself on astrology and Bigfoot. Halfway through this masterpiece of nature and science writing, I realized I was once again looking at the world with the humble attention it deserves. I felt lucky to live in a cosmos that can produce the color consciousness of the peacock mantis shrimp, the guidance system of the bar-tailed godwit, blind artists, the fanatically patient curiosity of scientists and writers who choreograph these details in such a parade. of wonders.

Michael Sims’ books include “Adam’s Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form” and a companion book to the National Geographic Channel series “In the Womb: Animals.”

How animals illuminate the wonder of our human senses

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