Illustration by Indi Maverick

What Counts as Seeing

A conversation between Alice Wong and Ed Yong

Alice Wong: I’ve been thinking a lot about the titles of your books, An Immense World and I Contain Multitudes, because I think most humans don’t really realize how interdependent we are to other organisms. Bacteria, fungi, viruses, bugs—there is still this binary thinking of these organisms as good or bad, as clean or dirty, which really obscures the reality. So I was wondering, how do you view your body’s relationship with the natural world, especially in the midst of this pandemic?

Ed Yong: I Contain Multitudes and An Immense World feel to me like connected books. Like part one and two of a series, with the main underlying theme being that the world is richer and weirder and wider than we understand. The first book explored that idea through the microbiome. It showed that our cells and our bodies are home to all these audiences we can’t see and that profoundly influence our lives, our minds, our health.

An Immense World argues that the world around us is deep and richer than we know because we are confined by the constraints of our own sensors. Other animals operate under different constraints and so perceive a very different world than what we are familiar with. And even everyday things, a street or a plant or a featureless body of water, are rich with information that other creatures can tap into, and that we can’t. 

You’re right that, beyond that, there is this theme of interdependence. I am deeply enamored with ecology as a field. Multitudes was very much about that. It was about microbial ecology, the collections between these organisms we disdain or ignore and ourselves. An Immense World contains those elements too. For example, there’s a part in the book where I talk about what kind of eye would be best at discriminating the fine differences between flowers. What you get is an eye that has receptors for blue, green, and ultraviolet: specifically, the wavelengths of an insect eye. You might think that eye evolved to see those colors, but actually it’s the other way around. The insects evolved first, and the flowers came later. The flowers developed colors that best tickle the eyes of insects. These creatures are highly interdependent, but in an unpredictable way. 

We think of the senses as passive intake valves: Light enters my eyes; my ears are vessels for absorbing sound. But actually the senses have this almost active role in shaping the world around us. In viewing nature’s palettes, eyes also act like paint brushes.

AW: I love that line. That’s such a delightful way of describing the relationships between all these organisms within the larger ecosystem.

EY: I really wanted the writing of the book to capture that feeling of delight and magic, because the topic is so delightful and so magical. On one hand, there’s a lot of cool biology in that. We like learning about things. An insect that can see colors in the dark feels extraordinary. But things don’t have to be better than us to be extraordinary. I really wanted the writing to capture this feeling of nature as both being kind of goofy at times but also deeply wondrous. 

The senses as a topic really leans into that because of how important imagination is for understanding them. Light is electromagnetic radiation. Smells are just small molecules drifting through air and water. Sound is just pressure waves. It’s not actually obvious that we should be able to sense any of these things, let alone then transform them into nervous reactions, and then from those signals derive all the things we find beautiful in the world. The senses are actually genuinely wondrous in what they allow us to do. They turn these fairly abstract stimuli into these incredible, subjective experiences. And it becomes that much more exponentially wondrous when you think about how differently all the multitudes of other creatures do it.

AW: You write about umwelt (a term coined by the zoologist Jakob von Uexkull): the [particular ways in which an] animal perceives the immense world. With human beings as the major contributor to the climate crisis, what are your hopes about this book expanding people’s bubbles to the biodiversity of the creatures among us?

EY: Many people knew this before, but the last three years have hammered home the fact that we cannot protect things that we don’t empathize with. If we don’t care about the value of other lives, whether human or animal, then we won’t be motivated to protect those lives. What I hope to do in this book is to give people a reason to care about other creatures. By stoking that sense of wonder, by getting them to spend some time inside the heads or other body parts of other creatures, we can make a case for why their lives matter in their own right. I say up front that the book isn’t utilitarian about nature. I don’t care about the value of animals as model organisms or as inspirations for new technology. I think that there is a strong argument to be made that they are worthy in their own right and that they’re worth protecting and saving in their own right.

Considering the senses of other animals is a great exercise for us to do for our own sake—we learn a lot, we get a deeper understanding of nature—but it’s something that we need to do for their sake. Because if we don’t, we ignore the ways in which we are making life more difficult for creatures whose lives we have already made difficult in a lot of other ways.

AW: I remember the chapter about marine biologists who, because they’re humans and they need lights to see under the oceans, are basically terrorizing sea life. And they refined their techniques to not freak out the actual animals that they want to understand within their own environments.

EY: Even biologists, even people who study these creatures, often make mistakes. They subconsciously and inadvertently map their sensors onto those of other creatures. How many decades were people studying lab mice and rats before anyone realized that they were communicating with ultrasonic calls? Even folks who study the sensors sometimes run afoul of this particular brand of anthropomorphism.

AW: I really enjoyed the first chapter where you explored a dog’s sense of smell by kneeling down with your eyes closed and sniffing a chocolate-scented string. (Luckily, it was chocolate.) Did that experience change your appreciation for your Corgi, Typo?

EY: Yeah, it did. I did the usual stuff that a lot of people who write these books do. You go on trips, you meet people, you have little adventures for hopefully delightful color in the book. I got punched by a mantis shrimp, was electrocuted by a catfish, and blundered into a room full of giant spiders. But arguably the greatest adventure of all was getting Typo in January 2021. At that point the pandemic was well underway. I had written half the book. I still had half to write. And for reasons best known only to myself at the time, my wife and I decided to get a puppy. 

We have been really focused on Typo’s sense of smell from the get-go. We try to encourage him as far as possible to sniff stuff. When we go on walks, he’s allowed to sniff. Sometimes we need to get somewhere and we can’t stop at everything, but at least once a day we have a dedicated walk where he gets to control the pace, he gets to sniff anything he wants to, within reason. I don’t want him to grab random stuff off the street, but in the main he gets to explore, he gets to use his nose to his heart’s content. Today it’s a rainy day, I’ll probably play some sniff games with him.

It makes them more optimistic. It makes them less anxious. It’s part of who they are. And just watching him do this has made me think harder about a lot of the themes in the book. Part of what I’ve tried to do is to recast familiarity in a new light. The streets around our house, where we go out for a walk three times a day, are so familiar to me that I never stop to look at them, really. It’s the same street all the time. It looks the same. It’s a little boring. But it’s not boring to him. Whenever we go on walks, there will always be a moment where he’ll be trundling along and then just grind to a halt and flip around because he smelled something interesting in the street. He’ll smell plants, places where other dogs have peed. I think of going for a walk with Typo as him checking his social media. It’s very much like when I’m scrolling through Instagram or Twitter and seeing what my friends are up to. He does this on a walk. He checks out what all the neighborhood dogs are like, what they’re doing, where they’ve been. It’s a deeply social activity for him.

AW: They’re chemical tweets.

EY: Absolutely.

AW: It’s also an example of respecting other umwelts. Humans have this unfortunate need to have hierarchies.

EY: I agree. Animals aren’t interesting just when they are better than us. Things that are simpler than us are actually deeply fascinating too. And one of the wonderful things about the umwelt concept is that there are always trade-offs. Nothing can sense everything, and nothing needs to. So humans, we have a very good sense of touch, but it only operates on close contact; we don’t have the distance touch that a fish or a manatee or a spider has. We have very sharp eyes, almost unparalleled in their sharpness; but because of that, we trade in sensitivity. Our ears are pretty good, but we can’t hear ultrasound in the way a bat can. We can’t hear infrasound the way an elephant can. We don’t have electric and magnetic sensors. But all the creatures that have those things are also limited. An electric fish that can generate its own electricity and sense of the electric fields has the ability to find hidden prey that would otherwise be imperceptible to the eyes, but its vision is very, very short-range.

So there’s always trade-offs, and I think that’s kind of great. It’s a little paradoxical. It’s a slightly limiting concept. It means all of us are kind of constrained and trapped by the confines of our own senses. But it also is wonderfully expansive because it means that nothing can do everything.

AW: I loved your conversation with John Caprio, who studies catfish. I’m a little jealous that they have taste buds everywhere. He says if he was a catfish, he would jump into a vat of chocolate because you could taste chocolate with your butt.

EY: That’s right. Yeah, absolutely.

AW: Imagine if humans could taste throughout their entire body! What a great image, right? Tasting chocolate—

EY: With your butt.

AW: With your butt.

EY: There are lots of delightful thought experiments like that. Animals vary not just in terms of what they can perceive, but with what they [use to] perceive. We have our eyes. Most of us have two. They’re on our heads. They face forward. But eyes can occur all over the place in other creatures. They can come in twos or hundreds. Ears on insects show up absolutely everywhere. Basically every part of the insect body, in one species or another, has an ear somewhere.

And similarly with tongues. For us, for most animals, taste is about food. It’s about accepting or rejecting food that is good or bad. And because we are large animals, food is a thing that we put into our mouths, so taste is a thing that happens in our mouths. But if you are a fly or an insect or something very small, food can be something that you land on or walk on. So, many insects have taste sensors on their feet. When a fly lands on a piece of fruit that you’re eating, that fly is tasting it. When a mosquito lands on my DEET-covered arm, it tastes DEET before its head gets anywhere near my skin. 

AW: Not to focus on butts, but…

EY: By all means.

AW: They’re kind of funny, right? Butts?

EY: Right.

AW: You mentioned how any organ can be anywhere. I believe it’s moths or butterflies, that they have eyes in their genitals to help them fight each other. Eyes and taste buds on butts! What a world that would be.

EY: Here’s the wonderful thing about that. Butterflies have photo receptors, so they have light sensors on their genitals. And they can absolutely detect light, so they can use that to position their genitals onto a mate or onto a place where they can lay eggs. But does that count as seeing? I think a lot of people would say no, right? It’s not like it has a complex eye, like what we have. I don’t think it’s getting any kind of image from it. 

I think that tension between just perceiving something, just detecting a stimulus, and then using it in the sort of rich way where we have a mental representation of what’s detected, is actually a very profound tension that exists across a lot of the senses. Does a mosquito landing on my skin have a mental perception of taste in the way that I have when I eat a bar of chocolate? I don’t think so. I think it’s more reflexive.

And this stuff gets really complicated when you start thinking about things like color and pain, quite complex concepts that other creatures might not only perceive in a different way, but also the conscious experience might be profoundly different or actually non-existent. It’s really hard to know that.

AW: We’re also limited by our language. I said the word see but there are gradations of see from eyeballs to photo receptors. I think a lot about the limitations of language and how we interpret the language we use every day to talk about the senses. 

EY: There is a profound language problem. On the one hand, language is a wonderful tool. It allows us to describe these other worlds in metaphors that help us think and imagine them. But there are many places where our language leaves us in the lurch. Like with vision, we don’t have a word for detecting light but not having a conscious experience of it. Photo reception is sort of there, but seeing is used for all sorts of different things that really run the spectrum. And the problem is even worse when you think about senses like smell, where most Western cultures, at least, have a very impoverished vocabulary. Or when you think about electric senses, about fish talking with their own electric messages—the language of electricity is just sort of weird and abstract and cold. You have to talk about things like voltage and current and potential. There’s none of the words that we would use to describe tastes or sounds, none of that sort of rich lexicon, and that’s a problem. When we don’t have the words or when our words are overly broad, we run into misconceptions. 

Which brings me to the subject of ableism.

AW: Before our interview, you mentioned how you discovered writing about the senses [can be] ableist. What led you to that realization?

EY: I’ve read a lot of writing on the senses, both about humans and other animals, and it’s really striking to me that people gravitate towards big, sweeping statements about humans as a species that clearly don’t apply to all members of the species. One of the most common things you’ll read on this topic, from almost any source, is that humans are a visual species. We are visual creatures. That’s true on average, but millions of people are blind or have sight impairments. So if you’re a blind person, what does it mean to have someone repeatedly tell you humans are a visual species? Does that mean that you’re less than human?

When you compare across species, there’s a very easy tendency to think, Whose hearing is better? Whose sense of sight is better? And there’s a way to do that that captures the interest inherent in that question, but there’s also a way of doing it that basically says, these animals aren’t good with this sense and humans who are weak in this sense are flawed in some way. Comparing and contrasting that tendency to make generalizations can very easily devalue the experiences of humans who sense the world in very different ways.

AW: Do you have any thoughts on how the sciences can center and amplify the work of disabled and diverse people across different fields? Because as much as this book is about non-humans, I feel like there’s also the story of scientists and the amazing, passionate, really fascinating people who are studying the natural world.

EY: There really are a lot of scientists who have sensory divergence, who have things like colorblindness or prosopagnosia, the kinds of things that some people might bill as disorders and that I’m choosing to bill as perceptual differences. These kinds of differences make people a little bit more attuned to the ways in which animals might be different. If you know that the way you perceive the world is atypical, you’re more likely to cue into atypicality in the creatures you are studying.

And a lot of them have arts backgrounds. There are a lot of painters and musicians among people who study vibrations and sounds. And I think that’s valuable too because the problem with thinking about the sensors— which folks like Thomas Nagel and others wrote about—is that it’s an inherently impossible task. We can get some way towards understanding how a bat or a whale or a dog experiences the world, but we’ll never get that entirely. There’s always going to be this chasm where it can only be leapt over through imagination rather than through empiricism. Empiricism can guide our imagination, but we still have to make that final leap on our own. To really get at this, you need to fuse the sciences and the arts. You need to think more broadly than just the products of research papers. And people who are artists have an edge in thinking in this way. They are people who are paid to let their imaginations run riot. 

In science, it’s very male, it’s very white, it’s very abled. And there’s also this tendency to prize a cold, detached, supposedly objective and neutral view of the world that’s devoid of richness. One of my favorite reviews for I Contain Multitudes was a one-star review on Amazon, someone saying that this is a book about feelings, which makes it not a science book. There are no figures and tables or charts and numbers, and it’s not serious enough. That science should be opaque and serious. I think it should be exactly the opposite.

AW: So much of the way knowledge is produced within an academy is very exclusive and inaccessible to so many people with not just different senses, but just to different walks of life. And that’s across every field. It’s such a loss, I think, about our understanding of the natural world.

EY: If you get a more diverse group of scientists—whether in their background, in their neurology and psychology—you learn more. You see the world in different ways and you learn things about nature that you would’ve missed if everyone thought and sensed in the same way. It’s all connected with many of the other axes of bias and discrimination within the academy, the fact that it is heavily sexist and racist and ableist. All of those things are part of this same homogenization of science that makes it weaker.

Science is not a neutral force. A scientist’s conclusions are profoundly effect-influenced by the methods that she used, which are influenced by the questions that she thought to ask, which are influenced by her own beliefs and values, which are influenced by her senses, by her culture, by her background. The book is a call to appreciate the diversity of nature, but it’s also a call for diversity within science.

AW: There is so much that remains to be discovered and known about the world, and some parts are never going to be truly known. What are you fascinated by? What do you find wondrous at this moment?

EY: Partly that, the sheer number of unknowns. Sensory biology has a very long history to it, centuries of work to delve into, and yet there’s still so much we don’t know. Even if we bring the full might of our current neuroscientific and psychological and biological know-how to the problem, there will always be that gap at the end that we just can’t cross. To me, that means there’s so much potential in this field. There’s so much to discover.

One thing I love about sensory biology is, a lot of people enter the field and study weird shit. They pick strange creatures to work on. It’s why the book is so weird and diverse, why it’s not just a book about cats and dogs, it’s also a book about spiders and manatees and scallops and killer flies and peacocks and bats. I hope that in every chapter, there’s multiple instances where people learn about a creature they’d never heard of before. If I try and tell you what the big discoveries in sensory biology will be over the next 10 years, I will be so laughably wrong. Some of the coolest stuff will probably be about a species that I don’t even know exists right now. And that’s really cool to think about it. There’s remarkable a sort of unpredictability there.

AW: What are the ways that this type of book writing feeds into your reporting? Because they’re a little different, but that’s not to say in conflict with each other.

EY: The topics are different, obviously, but I see interconnections between the book and my pandemic work, partly in terms of skills. Working on small pieces helps you write longer pieces. Longer pieces help you write a book. Writing a book taught me a lot about writing under deadline, and that was instrumental for writing, I don’t know, what, almost 50 massive pandemic features back-to-back. Writing those features made it much easier to write a book-length project. The second half of the book, which I wrote during the pandemic, went by a lot faster than the first half, which was written before it, because I had nine months of relentless feature-writing in the middle to flex those writing muscles.

I’ve spent the last three years mainly writing not that quite grim and sad stories about one specific way in which the natural world kicked our ass over a protracted period of time. And while that work is deeply meaningful to me and I intend to continue it, there is something about writing a book about nature that feels very true to my roots. It feels very pure and primal to me. It’s the thing that I love the most. This is the kind of book that I would’ve loved to have read when I was a kid. We could all use a bit of joy and happiness right now, and in some ways I hope that this book is a gift to my readers, is something full of light.

Ed Yong is a science journalist who reports for The Atlantic. He is based in Washington, DC. He won the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory journalism for his coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic; the George Polk Award for science reporting; the Victor Cohn Prize for medical science reporting, and more. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, including AN IMMENSE WORLD, about the extraordinary sensory worlds of other animals.

Alice Wong (she/her) is a disabled activist, writer, editor, media maker, and consultant. Alice is the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability media and culture. She has been published in the New York TimesVoxRadiolabPEN AmericaCatalystSyndicate NetworkUncanny MagazineCurbed SFEaterBitch MediaTeen VogueTransomMaking Contact Radio, and Rooted in Rights.