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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Ed Yong ROCKS!

 Reflections on the Umwelt.

This young man, jeez...
Imagine an elephant in a room. This elephant is not the proverbial weighty issue but an actual weighty mammal. Imagine the room is spacious enough to accommodate it; make it a school gym. Now imagine a mouse has scurried in, too. A robin hops alongside it. An owl perches on an overhead beam. A bat hangs upside down from the ceiling. A rattlesnake slithers along the floor. A spider has spun a web in a corner. A mosquito buzzes through the air. A bumblebee sits upon a potted sunflower. Finally, in the midst of this increasingly crowded hypothetical space, add a human. Let’s call her Rebecca. She’s sighted, curious, and (thankfully) fond of animals. Don’t worry about how she got herself into this mess. Never mind what all these animals are doing in a gym. Consider, instead, how Rebecca and the rest of this imaginary menagerie might perceive one another…

These seven creatures share the same physical space 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.[*1] Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal can only tap into a small fraction of reality’s fullness. Each is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world.

These seven creatures share the same physical space 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.[*1] Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal can only tap into a small fraction of reality’s fullness. Each is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world.

There is a wonderful word for this sensory bubble—Umwelt. It was defined and popularized by the Baltic-German zoologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909. Umwelt comes from the German word for “environment,” but Uexküll didn’t use it simply to refer to an animal’s surroundings. Instead, an Umwelt is specifically the part of those surroundings that an animal can sense and experience—its perceptual world. Like the occupants of our imaginary room, a multitude of creatures could be standing in the same physical space and have completely different Umwelten

…Uexküll compared an animal’s body to a house. “Each house has a number of windows,” he wrote, “which open onto a garden: a light window, a sound window, an olfactory window, a taste window, and a great number of tactile windows. Depending on the manner in which these windows are built, the garden changes as it is seen from the house. By no means does it appear as a section of a larger world. Rather, it is the only world that belongs to the house—its Umwelt. The garden that appears to our eye is fundamentally different from that which presents itself to the inhabitants of the house.”

…Unlike many of his contemporaries, Uexküll saw animals not as mere machines but as sentient entities, whose inner worlds not only existed but were worth contemplating. Uexküll didn’t exalt the inner worlds of humans over those of other species. Rather, he treated the Umwelt concept as a unifying and leveling force. The human’s house might be bigger than the tick’s, with more windows overlooking a wider garden, but we are still stuck inside one, looking out. Our Umwelt is still limited; it just doesn’t feel that way. To us, it feels all-encompassing. It is all that we know, and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know. This is an illusion, and one that every animal shares…

A few terms will act as guideposts on our journey. To sense the world, animals detect stimuli—quantities like light, sound, or chemicals—and convert them into electrical signals, which travel along neurons toward the brain. The cells that are responsible for detecting stimuli are called receptors: Photoreceptors detect light, chemoreceptors detect molecules, and mechanoreceptors detect pressure or movement. These receptor cells are often concentrated in sense organs, like eyes, noses, and ears. And sense organs, together with the neurons that transmit their signals and the parts of the brain that process those signals, are collectively called sensory systems. The visual system, for example, includes the eyes, the photoreceptors inside them, the optic nerve, and the visual cortex of the brain. Together, these structures give most of us the sense of sight.

The preceding paragraph could have been pulled from a high school textbook. But take a moment to consider the miracle of what it describes. Light is just electromagnetic radiation. Sound is just waves of pressure. Smells are just small molecules. It’s not obvious that we should be able to detect any of those things, let alone convert them into electrical signals or derive from those signals the spectacle of a sunrise, or the sound of a voice, or the scent of baking bread. The senses transform the coursing chaos of the world into perceptions and experiences—things we can react to and act upon. They allow biology to tame physics. They turn stimuli into information. They pull relevance from randomness, and weave meaning from miscellany. They connect animals to their surroundings. And they connect animals to each other via expressions, displays, gestures, calls, and currents.

The senses constrain an animal’s life, restricting what it can detect and do. But they also define a species’ future, and the evolutionary possibilities ahead of it. For example, around 400 million years ago, some fish began leaving the water and adapting to life on land. In open air, these pioneers—our ancestors—could see over much longer distances than they could in water. The neuroscientist Malcolm MacIver thinks that this change spurred the evolution of advanced mental abilities, like planning and strategic thinking. Instead of simply reacting to whatever was directly in front of them, they could be proactive. By seeing farther, they could think ahead. As their Umwelten expanded, so did their minds…

Yong, Ed. An Immense World (pp. 3-8). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
This book was released today. Just getting started. It's been 40 years since I had undergrad psych "Sensation and Perception" at UTK. Will be an interesting read, this book. I hope it helps improve my own thinking on "Deliberation Science" issues.


Review seen today in my Science Magazine.
The Amazon blurb:
Nineteen leading literary writers from around the globe offer timely, haunting first-person reflections on how climate change has altered their lives—including essays by Lydia Millet, Alexandra Kleeman, Kim Stanley Robinson, Omar El Akkad, Lidia Yuknavitch, Melissa Febos, and more.

In this riveting anthology, leading literary writers reflect on how climate change has altered their lives, revealing the personal and haunting consequences of this global threat.
In the opening essay, National Book Award finalist Lydia Millet mourns the end of the Saguaro cacti in her Arizona backyard due to drought. Later, Omar El Akkad contemplates how the rise of temperatures in the Middle East is destroying his home and the wellspring of his art. Gabrielle Bellot reflects on how a bizarre lionfish invasion devastated the coral reef near her home in the Caribbean—a precursor to even stranger events to come. Traveling through Nebraska, Terese Svoboda witnesses cougars running across highways and showing up in kindergartens.
As the stories unfold—from Antarctica to Australia, New Hampshire to New York—an intimate portrait of a climate-changed world emerges, captured by writers whose lives jostle against incongruous memories of familiar places that have been transformed in startling ways.
Goes to the "Anthropocene." From the introduction:
When we think of environmental crises our minds might go first to extreme weather events, like Superstorm Sandy, whose size and scale were amplified by climate change. At approximately 8:00 p.m. on October 29, 2012, Sandy struck Atlantic City, New Jersey. That night, a full moon hung in the turbulent sky, pulling the ocean tides a full 20 percent higher than normal and increasing Sandy’s storm surge. Seawater rose along the Eastern Seaboard toward New York City and then poured into Manhattan, flooding subways and sidewalks. More than six hundred thousand people lost power throughout the five boroughs; many would be without electricity for more than a week. The years since Sandy have seen an escalating series of even larger events. In 2020, there were so many tropical storms that the World Meteorological Organization nearly ran out of names for them.

But the connections between humans and the natural world go beyond extreme weather events. As the Earth warms, other devastating phenomena continue to thrash the planet: invasive species migrate to cooler climates, choking off local wildlife and creating potentially threatening moments of contact between animals and humans. Wildfire “seasons” are now year-round. Low-lying nations threatened by sea-level rise, like the Marshall Islands, are being forced to consider a terrifying, almost inconceivable choice: relocate the entire population or elevate the land. For the Marshallese, the latter would involve raising 1,200 islands scattered across 750,000 square miles of ocean. Early in 2020—and partway through compiling this anthology—the COVID-19 pandemic encircled the world, altering our lives in ways that are by now familiar. The catastrophic novel coronavirus was borne out of humanity’s complex and unsustainable relationship with wildlife. The way things are headed, this pandemic likely won’t be the last.

To use a metaphor that has grown uncanny, these visible effects of global warming are just the tip of the iceberg. In the public conversation about climate change, macro change tends to take center stage, and for good reason: it impacts the lives of millions and serves as an increasingly urgent reminder of the need for decisive action. But less told among the literature of climate change are the stories of individuals—how they’re coping (or not) with the changes occurring in their own lives. That’s the scale that The World as We Knew It seeks to highlight—not by turning away from global events, but by emphasizing the links between the individual, the collective, and the environmental. Sometimes the connections between the personal and the planetary can be hard to see, but once we start looking, we notice that they’re everywhere…

The World As We Knew It (pp. xii-xiv). Catapult. Kindle Edition

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