Monday, July 22, 2024
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What does a funny-looking mole have to do with our sense of touch?

Michael Sims

THE WASHINGTON POST – The star-nosed mole can barely see, yet this hamster-size mammal is the fastest-hunting predator in the animal kingdom. Employing a snout equipped with 22 fleshy Cthulhu-like tentacles, it can identify and kill prey in less than the blink of an eye.

As Jackie Higgins explains in her brilliant new book, Sentient, these heightened tactile abilities make this little-known creature the perfect specimen to help scientists explore the sense of touch in other animals, including humans.

Higgins compares the star-nosed mole to the experience of blind Turkish artist Esref Armagan, who needs only to touch an object to be able to paint its likeness, and then she examines how each accomplishes its remarkable feats.

Sentient is a fascinating exploration of animal and human senses – reaching well beyond the five defined by Aristotle. Higgins’s cast includes a peacock mantis shrimp that helps illuminate how we see colour, a great grey owl that helps explain how we hear, and a giant peacock moth that helps us understand our sense of desire.

How relevant is all this wonder to our daily lives, Philistines might ask, beyond the noble mission of dazzling us with the splendour of ourselves and our wild neighbours?

Throughout Sentient Higgins weaves together the perceptions of the human senses, the larger animal context for our sensory equipment, and the passion of scientists who painstakingly unearth and decipher such discoveries.

High-tech equipment aids such inquiries, but first scientists must, for example, lie on their backs inside a colony of vampire bats to observe how these creatures pass along to their ill or orphaned fellows the life-giving blood that they have siphoned from other mammals.

Discovering this mythic-level altruism was physically miserable. “I often had researchers come out screaming,” admits one scientist.

Higgins doesn’t draw analogies between humans and other animals as a mere narrative gimmick. She uses them to clarify the vast community of which we are members. From the bats’ grooming of toddler vampires, for example, Higgins segues to an examination of the human need for our many senses of touch:

“As our world becomes more touch averse than at any time in our history, as the act of a touch becomes politicised and teachers are asked to refrain from close contact with children, as we lean toward conducting our relationships online and older people are said to be silently enduring an epidemic of loneliness, as we socially distance in the hope of quelling global pandemics, scientific evidence warns us to ignore this sense at our peril. It is not simply our handle on reality but the sense that, more than any other, makes us who we are.”

Crucial in science writing, as in poetry, are clarity and apt analogy. To make clear how the shape of an owl’s face channels sound waves into its ears, Higgins reminds us that we can hear better simply by cupping a hand around an ear – or, if we prefer to use technology, by employing a Victorian ear-trumpet.

To emphasise the sensitivity of the snout of the star-nosed mole, Higgins says, “Imagine having six times the sensitivity of your entire hand concentrated in a single fingertip.”

Higgins has written, directed, and produced science films for National Geographic, the BBC, PBS’s Nova, and the Discovery Channel. Like the cheetah racing across the cover of Sentient, she has adapted to her habitat with elegance and efficiency. She modestly keeps herself in the background, yet she orchestrates every image and juxtaposition like a film director, adding up to a rousing vision of life.

Keats once joked that Isaac Newton “destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism.” But what could possibly be more poetic than the raw facts of nature? In Higgins’s hands, they don’t even seem raw; they feel elegant, interwoven, meaningful.

The rainbow of perception and behaviour is no less glorious when passed through the prism of scientific attention, and it illuminates in new ways.

A hungry sense of wonder requires a diet of nutritious facts, or it will binge on astrology and Bigfoot. Halfway through this masterpiece of nature and science writing, I realised that I was looking at the world again with the humble attention it deserves.

I felt lucky to live in a cosmos that can produce the colour awareness of the peacock mantis shrimp, the guidance system of the bar-tailed godwit, blind artists, the fanatically patient curiosity of scientists, and writers who choreograph these details into such a parade of wonders.