Ed Yong Explains Umwelt

Sally Deng

Ed Yong’s new book was already on our reading list, but just got notched up in the priority list:

Spectacle floods into my eyes whenever I watch a wildlife documentary. A vortex of small fish is gradually picked off by waves of oceanic predators. Snakes chase after marine iguanas. Giraffes clash at sunset.

While the nature shows I grew up with were more like didactic lectures, their modern counterparts — all of which seem to have the word “Planet” in the title — have the bombast of summer blockbusters. Technological advances are partly responsible. Wild creatures are difficult to film, and when footage is fleeting and scarce, narration must provide the intrigue and flair that the visuals lack. But new generations of sophisticated cameras can swoop alongside running cheetahs at ground level, zoom in on bears cavorting on inaccessible mountainsides and capture intimate close-ups of everything from wasps to whales. Shots can now linger. Nature documentaries can be cinematic.

But in the process, they have also shoved the square peg of animal life into the round hole of human narratives. When animals become easier to film, it is no longer enough to simply film them; they must have stories. They must struggle and overcome. They must have quests, conflicts, even character arcs. An elephant family searches for water amid a drought. A lonely sloth swims in search of a mate. A cheeky penguin steals rocks from a rival’s nest.

Nature shows have always prized the dramatic: David Attenborough himself once told me, after filming a series on reptiles and amphibians, frogs “really don’t do very much until they breed, and snakes don’t do very much until they kill.” Such thinking has now become all-consuming, and nature’s dramas have become melodramas. The result is a subtle form of anthropomorphism, in which animals are of interest only if they satisfy familiar human tropes of violence, sex, companionship and perseverance. They’re worth viewing only when we’re secretly viewing a reflection of ourselves.

We could, instead, try to view them through their own eyes. In 1909, the biologist Jakob von Uexküll noted that every animal exists in its own unique perceptual world — a smorgasbord of sights, smells, sounds and textures that it can sense but that other species might not. These stimuli defined what von Uexküll called the Umwelt — an animal’s bespoke sliver of reality. A tick’s Umwelt is limited to the touch of hair, the odor that emanates from skin and the heat of warm blood. A human’s Umwelt is far wider but doesn’t include the electric fields that sharks and platypuses are privy to, the infrared radiation that rattlesnakes and vampire bats track or the ultraviolet light that most sighted animals can see.

The Umwelt concept is one of the most profound and beautiful in biology. It tells us that the all-encompassing nature of our subjective experience is an illusion, and that we sense just a small fraction of what there is to sense. It hints at flickers of the magnificent in the mundane, and the extraordinary in the ordinary. And it is almost antidramatic: It reveals that frogs, snakes, ticks and other animals can be doing extraordinary things even when they seem to be doing nothing at all…

Read the whole essay here.

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