The TED Interview
Ed Yong on how animal senses reveal the world around us
September 22, 2022
[00:00:00] Steven Johnson:
Welcome to the TED Interview. I'm Steven Johnson. This is the first episode in what's going to be a truly mind-expanding new series we are doing all about health and the human body. Now, our bodies are unique, as are all the ways they interact with the world around us, but that's why we thought we'd start off by talking about non-human bodies and all the things that our human senses don't detect.
Because our human senses are all we have in order to perceive the world around us, we sometimes have a tendency to assume that they are giving us a comprehensive picture of reality. But in fact, our senses only detect a small sliver of all the potential information out there. And science has come to appreciate just how limited our perception is by studying the remarkable range of sensory systems across the animal kingdom. So this is going to be a conversation that asks you to stretch your imagination, to think about what it would be like to experience the world with a completely different perceptual system. To think about what it would be like to be a bat or a blue whale or a zebra finch.
Now, if you're a regular consumer of TED Talks, you probably know that Ed Yong has been stretching the limits of our imagination at least since 2014 when he delivered this classic talk on the TED stage.
[00:01:23] Ed Yong:
Orwellian dystopias and shadowy cabals and mind-controlling supervillains. These are tropes that fill our darkest fiction, but in nature, they happen all the time, which leads me to an obvious and disquieting question. Are there dark sinister parasites that are influencing our behavior without us knowing about it, besides the NSA?
[00:01:47] Steven Johnson:
Now that talk and Yong’s subsequent book I Contain Multitudes was a fantastic journey down to the scale of microbes venturing into the invisible kingdom of bacteria that supports all life on earth.
Since that book's publication, Yong's work as a writer for The Atlantic took on another, more ominous microbe through a series of powerful reported essays about the COVID pandemic that ultimately won him a Pulitzer Prize. We're gonna talk to Yong a bit about the COVID crisis, but our main focus today is his latest book, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us.
It's an almost hallucinogenic exploration of the many diverse ways that animals perceive the world. And it goes way beyond our five senses into completely different categories of perception, like the ability to detect magnetic or electric fields, or the flow of water from a fish swimming hundreds of feet in the distance or ultraviolet patterns and flowers invisible to humans.
It's a book that forces you to see the world through another's eyes, or even to imagine what it would be like to have a dozen eyes or none at all. That's next on the TED interview.
[00:03:10] Steven Johnson:
Ed Yong, welcome to the TED interview.
[00:03:13] Ed Yong:
Hi. Thanks for having me.
[00:03:14] Steven Johnson:
So we're really excited to have you on this show partially because you gave one of the all-time great TED Talks a few years ago, which I, I actually saw in person. Um, but mostly, we’re starting up a series of episodes, uh, on the podcast, all about the senses, which was directly inspired by your latest book, An Immense World.
Um, and I, I personally just finished it last night, and it is a truly wonderful book. Like it fills you with wonder as a reader at the sheer kind of diversity of the sensory experiences among all walks of life. Um, so we're gonna dive into some of those experiences. In fact, we're going to hear some of those experiences.
But as a way of getting started, I, I wanted to ask you about something that appears at the very end of the book in the acknowledgments, which closes with you expressing gratitude to a long list of single names like Morrow, Ellers, Athena, Ruby, Midge, and so on. I assume these are all animals that have hit your life over the years. Um, but were, were they a part of the inspiration for the book itself?
[00:04:26] Ed Yong:
A little bit. So, um, all of them are dogs and a few cats in the list too. They're dogs of close friends of mine, uh, people who I've met since, um, getting a dog of my own, uh, Typo, my corgi. And I wanted to thank them because I think that this book is a call to people to appreciate the animals around them, and that includes the animals in their lives too. You know, I, I've spent the last three years with, um, the sensory worlds of other animals rattling around my head, my imagination. But all of the, the creatures who I thanked by name help me to have animals in my heart, in my home, as well as my head.
[00:05:08] Steven Johnson:
Were you an animal person growing up, a dog person, or have you become more of one?
[00:05:14] Ed Yong:
Um, I’ve definitely become one. So weirdly, I was always obsessed with nature as a, as a child. You know, I went to zoos. I watched, uh, David Attenborough documentaries. I really was all about the animal kingdom, but I never had animals of my own.
In fact, Typo is, is my first pet, so I never lived with another non-human animal until last January, and it, it's been wonderful the ways in which that experience and the experience of writing this book have intertwined with each other. Um, I actually wrote about the ways in which dogs smell the world before I got Typo, and everything I learned in that section about the importance of smell to dogs, but how much happier and, um, less anxious and more optimistic they are when they get a chance to really use their nose.
All of that influenced the ways in which I raised him, the, the primacy in which we, we placed smell in his life. Um, and, and I think watching him go on these little olfactory adventures every time we go for a walk, watching him so intently and happily sniffing his way around our neighborhood, really hammered home a lot of what I was writing about in the book.
Uh, you know, the importance of sensors to what, uh, of other sensors to other animals and the, the ways in which thinking about their sensors transforms this mundane world that we're all familiar with into something fresh and magical and newly extraordinary.
[00:06:39] Steven Johnson:
In our family, we got a dog, um, a standard poodle named Nico when our kids were kind of in grade school. And the thing that I noticed about it, and I was never really much of a dog person, but one of the things I really loved about the experience is that it did provoke so many conversations about precisely what your, your book is about, which is the kids wondering, you know, what is Nico thinking? You know, what, what is he capable of? What is he remembering?
You know, what the sense of smell obviously is so interesting with dogs. And there was just a lot of conversations around the kitchen table about animal consciousness that had not, you know, come up naturally in conversation until we actually had this creature in the house. So it was, it's a wonderful part of that experience, I think.
[00:07:23] Ed Yong:
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think you can react to having an animal in your life in, in sort of two ways. I think that the sad way is to assume that they are exactly like us and to be like annoyed when they behave in ways that are different. Um, you know, I've seen dog owners, um, pull their dogs away from sniffing, like, other dogs, especially when they're sniffing other dogs’ genitals.
Like an area that, like, to humans seems like uncouth and weird, or even pulling their dogs along, like on, on a normal walk when the dog wants to explore and, and wants to use its nose. I think the, the more joyful, um, and, and wondrous way of reacting to having animals with us is exactly what you described, like using that as a way of expanding our own imagination and understanding.
You know, I think if you watch them closely, you cannot help but recognize that the way they think about the worlds, their behavior and, and yes, their senses too, are so different from ours. And I think it makes our world, um, deeper and richer and more extraordinary by thinking of that world through their senses.
[00:08:26] Steven Johnson:
So that idea of, of a different world, of the senses, um, it, it brings us to a, a key term that we, I think we should define. Now, generally, it's frowned upon in a podcast to start with asking the guests to define a word from German phenomenology, but, but we're gonna make an exception because it's, I think it's a really important word and, and, and very accessible once you, once you understand it, and that word is umwelt.
[00:08:51] Ed Yong:
Yes. Um, right. It's the core principle of the book. Um, umwelt, um, literally translates to environment in German and other languages. But the way that a lot of biologists use it is, is not to describe the physical environment. It's to describe the sensory worlds that each creature inhabits and in many ways is, is trapped in.
Um, so my, umwelt includes all the things that I can see and hear and smell and taste and touch, which actually is just a very tiny sliver of all the things that animals as a group can experience. Each creature is only privy to its own thin sliver of the fullness of reality, and that sliver is the umwelt.
Um, it's, it's what I can perceive, which is going to be very different to what my dog can perceive, or what an elephant or a bee or a rattlesnake can perceive. It’s a concept that I think is very humbling. Because it tells us that even though it feels like our senses give us a complete understanding of the world, that very much is an illusion and that we're simply missing out on a huge amount of information that’s out there.
But I think it's also a deeply profound and expansive concept. It, it means that even in the most familiar spaces like the, the office that I'm currently sitting in, there are wonders to be experienced. And the only way for us to really experience that is to try and imagine what it's like to be another creature in this space.
[00:10:27] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. And part of what's so powerful about what the book does, it's kind of a magic trick in a way, in that you're convincing us with our limited human senses, our human umwelt, to imagine what these other experiences would be like. And it, and it's not just a question of, oh, dogs have better smell than humans. Or, you know, owls have better night vision than humans. In some cases, it's completely different senses, you know, whether it's detecting magnetic fields or seismic rumbles in the earth. Um, and so that is, you know, one of the great achievements of the book, I think is that you're able to get people to experience these other ways of being, um, in a really compelling way.
Since this is an audio medium that we're, we're talking through. We thought it'd be, it would be fun to actually look at a couple of examples that involve sound so that we can actually hear them, um, and, and get you to talk about—
[00:11:20] Ed Yong:
[00:11:20] Steven Johnson:
—what, what is actually happening in these little audio samples. Um, so, let's start with this extremely odd sound.
[00:11:36] Ed Yong:
Right, so that's a noise created by a small insect called a treehopper. Um, I, I assume that most people listening to this have never heard of treehoppers before. But I guarantee you that if you've been in any kind of green outdoor space like a park, you will have been next to a treehopper at some point. These insects vibrate their abdomens while standing on parts of plants, and they send these seismic signals, these vibrations through the plant itself, through its stems and leaves and uh, and, and other parts.
And those vibrations are then picked up by other treehoppers. Now, these are not things that we can hear in the main, the reason you heard them in that sample that you played was that we've used equipment, we've used trickery to transform those vibrational signals into audible ones, into sounds that we can hear.
Um, but usually this world of vibrational messages, is, um, something that we are oblivious to, but it abounds through the plants that surround us. And, and I, I think tapping into it is kind of a weird and magical experience because, um, in the air, sounds of a very strong relationship between pit, the pitch, um, of the sound and the body size of the animal.
So, uh, you know, a mouse squeaks, but an elephant bellows. That kind of relationship breaks down when the vibrations are transmitted through solid surfaces like plants, which means that a treehopper’s, uh, song can be completely unlike what you want, imagine an insect’s to be. You know, as you've heard, it's not gonna be like the chirp of a cricket.
It can be melodic. It can sound like birdsong, like monkeys hooting. It might sound like a musical instrument. It might even sound like machinery, and these haunting, bizarre, sometimes ethereal noises are just cascading throughout all the plants around us, throughout the green spaces that we walk through, oblivious to the presence of these messages.
And that's part of the, the promise of An Immense World. You know, it's about saying that even these familiar spaces are, are abounding with signals that we can't perceive. Um, and, and that I think are are truly wondrous.
[00:13:46] Steven Johnson:
Why can't we perceive the sound waves that are coming off of the vibrating leaves?
[00:13:54] Ed Yong:
So in part because we don't have the, the right equipment. The, the treehoppers are standing on the plants. They're feeling the vibrations move through their bodies. They have the right receptors. These are not signals that are meant to be, um, transmitted through the air.
[00:14:09] Steven Johnson:
[00:14:09] Ed Yong:
They, they move through solid surfaces and, and even for the insects that we know transmit sound through the air like cicadas, right? Obviously, or crickets. They are also sending information through surfaces and that information will sound very different. You know, a cicada's vibrational song song completely different to the kind of cicada songs that we can hear.
[00:14:31] Steven Johnson:
So you mentioned song. Let's listen to another sound that we, we can hear with our ears, but that turns out to have a whole kind of secret layer to it that we can't detect through our human sensory organs.
[00:14:53] Steven Johnson:
And that's the zebra finch.
[00:14:54] Ed Yong:
Right so that's a, a pretty typical bird song. Um, and when I'm hearing that, I can make out, like, some notes, you know, some, some broad, um, some broad characteristics to the song, but it feels like there's a lot going on that is happening too quickly for my ears to detect. And there absolutely is, um, as the song progresses its pitch and its volume change at incredibly fast timescales that our ears just aren't suited to picking up, but that another zebra finch absolutely can, and this, um, these very rapid changes, what's known as the temporal fine structure, um, is what the birds seem to be paying attention to.
So, tt’s really paying attention to minutiae in the song, like the details that are so detailed that we can't even hear them. And, and I think that's another, like, fascinating example of the, the umwelt concept, right? Like the… Here is a case where we absolutely can hear what the animal is saying. Um, you know, it's within the frequency range of our hearing.
Um, it's, it's moving through air. I can absolutely hear it. You listening can hear it. Our hearing works at a temporal resolution such that we cannot perceive what the bird itself is sensing in its own song.
[00:16:21] Steven Johnson:
That's one of the things that I noticed as a kind of recurring theme of the book, is these different kind of relationships to time. I mean, one of the things that I came out of it realizing is that our human senses are so bound up in the preesnt, in this way that everything we perceive is basically stuff that is happening right now. But if you think about, for instance, you know, the sense of smell and a dog sense of smell, the, the dog has a relationship to things that happened in, in the past through the smell and through, I mean, you know, someone who was in the room an hour ago, the dog can pick that up.
Um, so there's a very, like your sense of, of time that you experience as an organism is, is radically different. I think depending on the, the, umwelt that you’ve being kind of granted.
[00:17:08] Ed Yong:
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think for, um, for sighted humans at this vision is, is very primary. It, it's, it's the sense that we rely on most. It’s the sense that dominates our culture and vision, is also a very instantaneous sense. Not exactly instantaneously, but light moves very, very quickly. And so, you know, we, the way in which we see the world is very rooted in the present. Smells take longer to diffuse. Um, so when my dog and I go for a walk, um, around our neighborhood, I'm seeing exactly what is happening in the present moment, whereas he is sniffing stuff that happened in the recent past.
You know, he's sniffing, um, the, the pee left behind by other dogs that have walked to that way minutes or even hours ago. And to me, um, when, when I watch him sniffing, it's like looking at an astronomer watching the light of distant stars.
You, you're really looking into events that happened a bit in the past, and we can sort of duplicate that, right? We can leave messages in writing for each other, but this is something that I think a lot of animals just do just naturally. Um, and, and I think you're right that this, this sense of time, um, varies depending on the kinds of senses that animals really, um, prioritize.
[00:18:25] Steven Johnson:
All right. Our last sound is, uh, one from the aquatic world that we, that we can't by definition, fully do justice to because. It's a really interesting component of this sound is an infrasonic wave, which is below 20 hertz, which is lower than our human ears can hear, particularly if you're listening to this conversation on a pair of AirPods.
So, so let's, let's hear this sound.
[00:18:58] Ed Yong:
So that is the song of a whale, um, and whalesong, you know, has been culturally iconic, um, since the seventies. And that's partly because of the work of, uh, um, a scientist named Roger Payne. Now it's interesting because Roger Payne also shows that whales do produce, um, these very low-pitch sounds that humans largely can't hear and that because they are so low-pitched and because they're moving in water travel over immense distances.
Um, so back in the day when, um, the ocean was a quieter place with fewer ships, um, filling it with noise, the song of a blue whale would've been able to traverse across the, um, length of an ocean. Um, you know, we, we know this because we have picked up the recordings of whales that were made on the other side of Atlantic over in the, um, east coast of America.
Um, and I think that then raises some really fascinating questions. Like if you see a whale swimming on its own in the middle of the ocean, is that whale really on its own? Like if it is in acoustic contact with other whales, uh, that are a long way away and that we can't see, is it not still part of a group?
So how do you count a whale pod? Do you count a whale pod as a group of individuals that are visually clustered according to the sense that humans use best? Or do you consider it in terms of the sense that whales prioritize, which is hearing? Um, you know, these are the types of questions that they think that I want people who read in a mental world to, to ponder because it, it changes our understanding of these creatures in a very, very fundamental way.
[00:20:39] Steven Johnson:
As humans, we think that we invented global communications networks, right? Right? But you think about the whales that have been doing this for a very long time, and it's kind of like they're text messaging to each other. That's what I imagine that they're kind of like eating some krill. Uh, that's what I'm doing right now. Uh, what are you guys doing on the South Pacific?
Um, but, but Payne's argument was, was very controversial when he first proposed that this long-distance communication was happening. What, what's the current state of the science on that idea?
[00:21:10] Ed Yong:
Well, I think it is absolutely clear that the songs can travel over the distances that Payne was talking about. Now, the bigger questions then about what the whales actually do with those sounds like, are they communicating over those distances? How would that even work when, you know, the wavelength of one of these songs is larger than, you know, the, the whale itself. Those are, those are really hard questions, and I think that they are questions that science as, as it currently exists probably cannot answer.
You know, you can't really do experimentation here or the kinds of experiments that you might do, which are just really hard to conceive of in a human scale. You know, we're talking about, um, a time scale and, and a physical scale that are very different to, to the, the scale of which we live our lives and do our work.
Um, I think that's another theme that runs throughout the book, that there are always going to be limits to what science can tell us and what, what is knowable about the umwelt of another creature. Um, partly because sometimes the experiments just can't be done or are very difficult to do as in this case, but, always because there is going to be the subjective gap between our subjective worlds and a whale, or an elephant’s or zebra finch’s.
You know, we can, I can tell you everything that we've learned, um, through decades of experimentation and observation, but to really get into what is it like to be a zebra finch, um, or a, or a whale or a treehopper requires a leap of imagination. It requires effortful work, and I think that's one of, another reason why it is really worthwhile thinking about the, uh, about the umwelt of another creature. You know, there's something very rewarding about having to flex your mind in this specific way, even if you know that you'll never fully get at the answer.
[00:23:08] Steven Johnson:
Speaking of effortful work, in terms of your job as a translator of these experiences for the, for the reader, what was the hardest to capture, to convey? I mean, what was the weirdest kind of umwelt that you encountered in, in all these investigations?
[00:23:27] Ed Yong:
Oh God, there are so many that are incredibly hard, but I think, um, magnetic reception, um, the ability to perceive earth's magnetic field must be among the hardest. And, you know, this is a sense that, um, quite a lot of animals seem to have—um, songbirds have it, sea turtles have it. Um, both of these creatures use the sense to guide their epic migrations over long distances, but magnetic reception is uniquely difficult to write about for, for a few reasons.
Firstly, it's the least, um, understood of all the senses. We still dunno what's the sense organ that detects magnetic fields in these animals. Um, it's, it’s… We have some ideas about how that sense might work, but no real firm answers. Um, it's a very difficult sense for researchers to study. So a lot of the studies in this field are, are wrong, uh, or have been disproven. So, you know, you have, you are left with this body of work that is difficult to interpret as a writer because some of it is just wrong and you have to work out which bits are wrong.
Um, and magnetic fields are just count—so counterintuitive. Um, you know, it's very difficult to explain to people how magnetism works. Um, and it's very difficult to imagine how it, what it might be like to sense a magnetic field. This, you know, for, for a lot of the, the weird things we've already talked about. You know, in the auditory world, for example, at least you can compare what a whale might experience to what you might experience with your own ears. But we have no baseline with which to appreciate what the sense of a magnetic field might be like. And then I think the limits of our language and the limits of our own senses greatly limit our understanding of the sense.
[00:25:24] Steven Johnson:
I wanna take a step back and think about what we can learn as, as humans from this immense world that you're chronicling. Um, and it, you know, as I kind of alluded to earlier in talking about our experience with the dogs, to me, it strikes me as a book that is in so many ways about consciousness, even though you don't really use that word that much, um, in it.
Um, but it, to me, it's what, it's just been wonderfully illuminating in terms of thinking about consciousness, including human consciousness. Um, there's a, there's a very famous essay which you do allude to several points, uh, by the philosopher, written by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, which has one of the greatest titles in the history of academic essays, which is “What is it Like to be a Bat?”
[00:26:04] Ed Yong:
Oh, so good.
[00:26:05] Steven Johnson:
And it, that essay is kind of a classic in consciousness studies because, you know, part of the argument is, as we've talked about, you know, earlier in this conversation is that, you know, as humans we inevitably kind of project our experience of the world onto what it must be like to be a, to be a bat.
Like, we can't really ever fully imagine what that would be like. And in the book, you even go further than that and, and talk about maybe a more challenging exercise, which is to imagine what it would be like to be an octopus. Can, can you tell us about that? That shows up at the end of the book. I think it is a very important example.
[00:26:44] Ed Yong:
Right. Um, so it… The octopus shows up in this chapter about putting all the senses together. Um, so here we have a creature whose body and whose brain is organized so differently to humans. So if you think about its sensors, it actually has pretty good eyes, um, that, uh, don't see in color like ours do, but they’re camera style like ours.
But then, you know, in the rest of the body and in the suckers, you have, um, receptors for taste and for touch. Does the octopus, um, taste a shape? Does it, um, feel the, um, feel the texture of a flavor? Um, I, it, it's, it's not clear to me. You know, if you go up from the individual centers to how the animal packages these together, things get even more complicated.
The octopus has a, a, a central brain, but it also has this very distributed nervous system, so it has more neurons in its arms collectively than in its actual head. And the arms have a degree of independence so they can do things on their own without bothering the central brain. They can take some commands to it, but you know, it's this very loose organization.
Um, you know, some, so you might argue, um, does the octopus have two umwelten? Does it have a, a kind of taste-touch world in the arms and a vision-guided world in the head that only send, that only, you know, roughly collaborate and communicate with each other, um, and of course the body is, is a body of infinite flexibility.
Um, you know, the, the octopus can squeeze through tight spaces. It has these incredibly flexible arms that move in very different ways to my jointed arms. So I think my argument here is to really understand the experience of an octopus, not only its senses, but its, its consciousness and, and all of that, you need to understand the entirety of the creature. Not just how the individual senses operate, but how they're put together. You need to understand the, the creature's body. Its nervous system. Its needs. Its evolutionary history. You, you need all of that.
And I think that is, that speaks to the, the, the problem posed by Nagel's wonderful essay about bats, which is that you're never going to be able to fully understand what it is like to be this creature. You know, our, our fantasy and our sci—science fiction is, is full of examples where people just transfer their consciousness into like the body of another animal. You know, the Game of Thrones does this. Um, uh, ancient, ancient myths do this, but it just wouldn't work because a human consciousness evolved within a human body, within a human umwelt.
It wouldn't work in an octopus body with an octopus umwelt. Like the idea that it would work stems from that, you know, idea of dualism, that the mind and body are separate, but, but they're not. They’re products of each other. Um, and you can't just simply put one in another and expect it to function in the same way, which is why you need the kind of imaginative leaps that Nagel wrote about and that, um, others have written about and that I write about in this book.
[00:29:51] Steven Johnson:
The other thing that I thought was really striking about the book, which is really more of a, a story about evolution, is the way that over evolutionary time, sensory organs end up shaping the objects that they perceive, right? You have to have a line somewhere. It's something like, you know, it's, it's not just that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in a real sense, like the eye creates the beauty that it perceives.
[00:30:14] Ed Yong:
[00:30:14] Steven Johnson:
Uh, te—tell us about that phenomenon. I think that's a, that's a wonderful sense of the kind of interconnection of life.
[00:30:20] Ed Yong:
Right, right. So, um, my favorite example of this is to, is in thinking about the, um, relationships between insects and flowers. Um, so if you took all the flowers in the world and in all their varied colors, and you asked what kind of eye would be best at discriminating between all of these colors, what you end up with is an eye that's very much like the eye a bee has.
Um, it has like us, um, three kinds of color sensing cells, um, the equivalent of our cone cells that are mostly sensitive to green, blue, and ultraviolet. And it turns out with that eye, you, you are really, really good at telling the difference between the color the flowers around us have. So you could imagine, um, that the, um, flowers came first and the bees and the other pollinating insects evolved eyes that are really good at, um, at seeing flowers well.
And it turns out to be exactly the opposite because if you look at when these things evolved, the um, the insects came first. Their eyes were already around before the flowers then evolved. So what this means is that flowers evolved colors that ideally tickle the eyes of bees, which is, is just a wonderful, magical idea.
And it also hints at something really important about the senses, like, I think, I think it's, it's very easy, and I thought this a little bit when I started writing this book, that the, the sensors are like passive vessels for the world. You know, the light goes into my eyes, sound goes into my ears. I'm just sitting there receiving information through the centers and then doing something with that information. The senses, as you say, have this very active role in shaping the world around us. Like through the simple act of sensing, insects have repainted flowers.
Um, and there are loads of examples of this. You know, the eyes of predators change the colors that their prey have. So the sensors actually very actively shape the world around us. Not through, you know, design or volition obviously, but, but through, um, you know, through the tether of evolution, um, they do, um, they do change the world, the things that they sense.
[00:32:40] Steven Johnson:
I'd like to take the last section of our conversation and, and zoom out a little bit and look at the, the arc of your career really over the last decade or so, because you've been involved in so many interesting projects. Um, you know, your last book came out in 2016, I Contain Multitudes, uh, another poetic reference. Right. You got Whitman and, and Blake, right? Immense World is from Blake? Yeah. There you go.
[00:33:04] Ed Yong:
Um, yeah, I feel like I'm stuck in a trend now, right? Like it always has to. Yeah.
[00:33:07] Steven Johnson:
Um, and that, you know, that was about how these, you know, microbes basically are running the show we call life and in many ways, and that's what that legendary TED Talk was all about. Um, and I, I think it's interesting just to talk about these two books in context. You know, on the one hand, you're a science writer and science is about constantly pushing into the unknown. So you're writing books about these unseen or invisible spaces, you know, and some that makes occupational sense.
Um, but I'm curious about what has drawn you to that quest in general to, to widen our kind of collective understanding of, of the natural world and help us see or experience these things that are intrinsically hard for us to, to really grasp, either because they're too small or because they involve, you know, different, umwelts. Um, where, where did that drive come from, intellectually?
[00:33:58] Ed Yong:
Yeah. Um, I struggle to trace to any particular moment or formative event. It's just always been there, right? I think that, um, really one of the reasons I became fascinated in science and nature since I was a kid is that I, I love finding out new aspects to the world around me.
Um, I, I think that the world is richer and more complex and more wondrous than we realize. And there are many hidden sides to it that are worth knowing about. And, and I think this manifests in lots of different ways throughout my work. So, um, these two books are about hidden sides of nature that I think are glorious.
Um, whether it's about the microbes that secretly influence our lives or whether it's the, um, signals and information that we don't perceive for the other animals too. But, but I think actually all of the work that I've done on the pandemic, um, fits into this, um, framework too. That work was about arguing that there are sides to our society that we don't necessarily pay attention to, but that make us vulnerable in the face of a new pathogen. Whether it's, you know, the, the structural inequities that meant that so many groups of marginalized people have been disproportionately hit by the virus, whether it's like the broken public structure that meant that a, a, a rich and powerful country like the US could be so, so badly overwhelmed by COVID. Um, you know, whether it's like chronic invisible illnesses that millions of people have and that are, that are often neglected.
Um, you know, to, in, in some ways like shedding a light in the stuff is, is very, um, feels like an easy fit for journalism, which is meant to be about, um, you know, shining the lights on the unknown corners of the world. And sometimes, you know, what we, what we uncover, um, is stuff we'd rather not know about, but absolutely do need to know about. Um, and sometimes in the case of the, this book, I hope, um, what we uncover is wonderful.
[00:36:00] Steven Johnson:
I was gonna turn to the, your COVID work, which has been so critical and important over the last couple of years and earned you a Pulitzer Prize much deserved for, for that reporting for the Atlantic.
Um, to me, one of the things that comes out of an experience like a pandemic, I've written about this a little bit as well, is that it's one of these moments where the connection between the smallest forms that life can take, um, even on the edge of being alive, in the case of a virus. We perceive something we don't normally perceive, which is how those smallest forms of life are, are deeply interwoven into the very largest forms of life.
And then we got metropolitan centers can be transformed by this, by this organism that we can't even see. And that's always been the case, uh, quietly behind the scenes, but the pandemic, that kind of situation forces us to perceive those relationships in a way that, um, that, that ordinary people don't normally think about.
[00:36:57] Ed Yong:
Yeah, I, I agree. Um, we exist in communities. With the pandemic, um, all of my writing really has been arguing fiercely that, um, individualism doesn't work. Like you can't just get out of this by expecting 330 million people to look out for themselves. We need to address this problem as a community. Uh, you know, as a national community. As a global community.
Um, I think at its core, biology really does show us how connected we all are. You know, there's, there's a… Ecology is the study of connections, the study of communities, um, and, you know, it's, it’s, it’s not a coincidence my first book was about a field called microbial ecology, and the second book is about a field that calls itself sensory ecology.
It's all about connections, and I think one of the, the greatest shames about the, the pandemic has been a failure to really understand that on the part of a lot of people, including I think some of our political leaders that, that we all are connected and we must face this thing together. And in some ways, like all of my work here is, is, is about the, the antidote to that, which I think is empathy, like a sense of understanding perspectives very different from our own and, and, and treating ourselves as part of a larger community and a larger world.
Um, you know, I'm, I'm doing that in An Immense World by asking people to, to go on these sensory journeys into other umwelts and, and doing that in my pandemic work by asking people to think about the risks and lives of people very different to themselves.
[00:38:31] Steven Johnson:
You’ve written a little bit recently about this idea of the pandemocene that we may be entering an era of, of increased pandemic activity. Um, you know, we know it is seemingly inevitable now that SARS-COV-2 is going to become an endemic virus. It's not going away. The question is, what is the process to it becoming endemic? Um, but is your expectation, is your assumption that we're going to see a series of these novel viruses appear in the coming years and this is going to become the new normal? Or is there the possibility of a more optimistic view there?
[00:39:09] Ed Yong:
Well, a bit of both, right? So I think the reality is that it is an absolute given that we'll have more of this. Um, you know, we, um, I, I was writing about the risk of pandemics. Um, you know, like a decade ago I did a big feature in The Atlantic in 2018 arguing that the, America was not ready for a new pandemic.
Um, and I have argued, um, you know, throughout this pandemic that having one pandemic doesn't, um, protect us from having more epidemics in the future. Like, multiple things can happen at once, and we now have a monkeypox epidemic to contend with on top of COVID. Um, so yeah, this stuff is baked into our future because we've created a world that is more prone to pandemics.
Um, you know, in a, in a recent piece about the pandemocene, I pointed out recent research shows that climate change forces animals to move into new, um, territories and new ranges. And that means that species that never encountered each other before will now suddenly meet for the first time and exchange viruses.
Viruses will find new hosts, and that increases the chance that they will eventually jump into us. This is just baked into our future because of the way we've let climate change run out of control. Um, and so we need to be ready for more, more variants of this current coronavirus, more viruses in the future.
We have to think about that risk of pandemics as basically part of the same mega problem that includes climate change. That includes the, the, um, sixth mass extinction of wildlife. We are facing a lot of immense global problems right now. Ex—huge existential threats that are all part of the same thing.
Um, and yes, I, I admit that it's worrying, it worries me a lot. I would be lying if I told you that I felt really good of our, about our odds of dealing with all of this, especially given our complete failure at dealing with the pandemic, right, that we are experiencing right now. You know, we're still in the middle of it. More variants knocking our door all the time and societal posture, um, has been one of capitulation.
Um, but I've made the argument, in this new book, in all of my pandemic writing, that we cannot afford the luxury of nihilism. Um, and I stand by that. Like, no matter how bleak things get, we always have a chance to right the ship.
We always have a chance to do something that grants us a better future. Um, that's true for the pandemic. It's true for climate change. It's true for the loss of biodiversity. We always have a chance to act, and we must maintain the necessary hope and discipline to do that. Um, you know, Mariame Kaba, an abolitionist and organizer, um, has repeatedly talked about, about how hope is a discipline, and it's not just this fuzzy emotion um, that's, um, you know, borne of, like, empty optimism. It's the result of hard, effortful work. And I think that's what we need right now to confront all of these problems that are weighing down upon us.
[00:42:22] Steven Johnson:
Disciplined optimism would be a good, uh, model for us all. So thank you for that. And thank you for expanding our horizons yet again, Ed Yong. We really appreciate talking to you.
[00:42:32] Ed Yong:
Thank you. This has been great. I really appreciated it.
[00:42:39] Steven Johnson:
That's it for the show today. The TED interview is part of the TED Audio Collective. This episode was produced by Allie Graham and mixed by Erica Huang. Sammy Case is our story editor, Fact-checking by Meerie Jesuthasan. Farrah Desgranges is our project manager. Constanza Gallardo is our managing producer. And Gretta Cohn is our executive producer.
Special thanks to Michelle Quint and Anna Phelan. Also thanks to Thomas R. Kieckhefer, Reginald Cocroft and Jessica Caton for letting us use their animal recordings. I'm your host Steven Johnson. For more information about my other projects, including my latest book Extra Life, you can follow me on Twitter at @stevenbjohnson or sign up for my Substack newsletter: Adjacent Possible.