An Immense World

An Immense World

An Immense World

by Ed Yong

Random House, 2022

Did you know that a squid feels pain? And that it appears to feel pain in all parts of its body? An octopus, on the other hand, will nurse an injured tentacle, apparently feeling some kind of discomfort in this particular part of its anatomy.

Did you know that scallops have eyes along the edges of their shells? That hermit crabs can gauge the potential danger of a predator by choosing to retreat into their shells or braving it outside at the tidewater line? They don’t always retreat but appear to be making a judgment.

Or that dinosaurs had skins and spines of shiny colors, like the variety of hues insects display today. Flowers, which evolved later, must have developed their brilliant coloring to attract pollinators. “Sight affects what is seen,” Yong says.

As for the sense of touch, alligators and crocodiles have little black bumps along their jawlines. These are pressure sensors. If we humans use our eyes to detect movement, the crocodilians can feel tiny differences in ripples in the water, perhaps even in air pressure when prey is nearby. That’s why they make lightning-fast attacks at anything that moves.

All these mind-bending facts kept me reading An Immense World by science writer Ed Yong.

When I was researching and writing Joyous Lies, which features a botanist who believes plants communicate with one another (they do!) I was confronted by the fact that if this is so, why not feel as guilty about eating plants as vegetarians do about eating meat? Some pescatarians take a middle road, believing that eating fish does not harm a sentient being. But researchers have shown recently that fish do indeed feel pain.

This chapter is the only one in this book which explores the sensory apparatus of earth’s creatures. But while we may learn the mechanisms, Ed Yong says, we cannot know what it is to experience the world the way other creatures do. It should make us humble.

An Immense World is well-titled, demonstrating that we don’t need to go to other planets to encounter the strange and wonderful world of creatures with senses different from ours.