‘They haven’t got no noses,/They haven’t got no noses,’ sings the dog Quoodle in G K Chesterton’s poem ‘The Song of Quoodle’. ‘And goodness only knowses/The Noselessness of man.’ Quoodle is exulting in the superiority of the canine sense of smell over that of humans, though actually ours is pretty good: in tests involving the identification of particular odorants, humans outperformed dogs in five out of fifteen cases. In his clumsy, doggy way, Quoodle is also making a bigger point: that each kind of animal inhabits its own sensory bubble – its Umwelt, as the zoologist Jakob von Uexküll named it back in 1909. Animals demonstrate a vast range of ways of perceiving the world. This is the subject of Ed Yong’s fascinating new book.
Yong starts with a brilliant thought experiment. ‘Imagine an elephant in a room,’ he begins. It’s a large room, of course, and the elephant is soon joined by a mouse, a robin, an owl, a bat, a rattlesnake, a spider, a mosquito, a bumblebee and, finally, a human – a plucky lass called Rebecca. Each of these animals deploys the set of senses it has, hearing a particular range of sounds, seeing a particular range of colours, sensing vibrations, heat and smells, listening to echoes, feeling the pull of magnetism. Spoiler alert: a scene of carnage very nearly unfolds, but only the spider dies, eaten by the bat. These creatures ‘share the same physical space’, Yong explains, ‘but experience it in wildly and wondrously different ways. The same is true for the billions of other animal species on the planet and the countless individuals within those species.’
To illustrate, let’s take a walk in the park, bringing the dog with us. For him the walk is mostly about smells, and for him the grass all around is not green but white; he sees the world in shades of blue, yellow and grey. The mallard floating