Book review: ‘The Sounds of Life’ by Karen Bakker
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A thought-provoking account of the science of non-human sound reveals the unexpected richness of a world we cannot hear.
Humans are rather poor listeners, compared with our fellow Earth-dwellers. The world is alive with sound that we cannot hear, from the ultrasonic echolocation of bats to the infrasonic ‘drumming heartbeat’ of the Earth’s crust beneath the crashing of ocean waves.
In ‘The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology is Bringing us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants’ (Princeton University Press, £25, ISBN 9780691206288), environmental researcher Professor Karen Bakker explains how the fields of bioacoustics and ecoacoustics – armed with relatively accessible digital technologies – are helping us comprehend and conserve this world we cannot hear.
‘The Sounds of Life’ is filled with stories about the discovery of non-human sounds and their meanings, reaching far beyond the usual suspects: whales and elephants. There are plenty of romantic allusions to music and poetry – “If humpbacks and bowheads recite sonnets, blue and fin whales are the marine masters of Zen koans” – although the prose never feels purple. In one memorable chapter, ‘Voice of the Turtle’, Bakker recounts the adventure of a young researcher discovering the little roars, squawks, clicks, cries, grunts, howls and chirps of turtles, which previously had been assumed mute.
Elsewhere, Bakker explains how even species without ears – or any other apparent means of hearing – have the ability to respond to surprisingly complex information conveyed through sound.
As it turns out, many non-human species produce and sense sounds, and with greater richness and complexity than we might have imagined. When we find that even plants demonstrate a form of ‘hearing’ and honeybees have enviable democratic processes, we are forced to reconsider our status among life on Earth. Can we really justify our domination of other species? It certainly makes it harder. The release of recordings of humpback whale ‘songs’, for instance, stirred opposition to commercial whaling, leading to a moratorium by 1982 and helping many species avoid extinction.
The heroes are often indigenous communities, many of which shared their traditional knowledge with scientists, guiding them to important discoveries. The Iñupiat people of Alaska, for instance, had long known that bowhead whales travelled under ice sheets, and thus encouraged scientists to use bioacoustics techniques rather than aerial surveys to conduct a census, revealing that populations were much larger than expected. It is not only traditional knowledge that Bakker argues we should value, but also attitudes common to indigenous communities which emphasise ‘one-ness’ with nature – and our responsibility to it.
Throughout the book are examples of how bioacoustics and ecoacoustics are being applied to help restore and protect ecosystems. One interesting study involved an artificial coral reef being paired with the sound of a thriving coral reef, attracting fish larvae which made that artificial reef their home. In the grander scale of climate crisis, the conservation solutions are small, but they are small rays of hope, and that cannot be unwelcome.
‘The Sounds of Life’ is a charming and timely book, packed with stories of remarkable, eye-opening (and ear-opening?) discoveries.
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