Why It's Essential to Listen to the Hidden Sounds of Nature
How digital technology is changing our relationships with nonhumans.
Posted October 18, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Karen Bakker's new book highlights how we can create new possibilities for interspecies communication.
- The book makes an impassioned call to use digital bioacoustics to make a positive difference for environmental conservation.
- Noise pollution is a significant threat to humans—increasing stress, cardiovascular incidents, and perhaps dementia—and also to nonhumans.
A few weeks ago, I received a copy of the University of British Columbia's Dr. Karen Bakker's book The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technologies Are Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants. I immediately began reading it and couldn't put it down. I spend many hours outdoors and love being immersed in the sounds I can hear and those that I imagine are "out there."
Here's what Karen had to say about her fascinating and forward-looking book.
Marc Bekoff: What is The Sounds of Life about?
Karen Bakker: Western scientists and philosophers have long assumed that sonic communication—and, hence, language—was limited to relatively few species. But we can now—thanks to advances in bioacoustics, artificial intelligence (AI), and other digital technologies—listen to and decipher the intricate communication of plants and animals, much of which occurs at frequencies imperceptible to the naked human ear. These enthralling, uncanny breakthroughs give us remarkable new ways of observing life on planet Earth and put us on the cusp of an entirely new realm of scientific knowledge.
MB: Why did you write The Sounds of Life?
KB: I’m a scientist and a teacher. My students and some of my colleagues feel a tremendous sense of climate anxiety and environmental grief. I understand their feelings. Over the three decades that I have spent working on these issues, environmental crises—such as biodiversity and climate change—have accelerated. For some, this can feel like an existential threat and an intergenerational betrayal.1
The Sounds of Life offers a hopeful message about how we can use digital technology to become closer to nature. It reveals the hidden world of nature’s sounds, the unsuspected capacities of other species for complex communication, and our newfound potential for interspecies communication.
MB: What are some of the topics and arguments of the book?
KB: In the past two decades, scientists have started using digital technologies—some of them similar to those found in your smartphone—to listen to nature in new ways. What are they learning?
First, a much broader range of species than previously understood can detect, respond, and make sound: moles and manatees, coral and starfish, from the humble pea to marine seagrass. Many creatures make sound in infrasound and ultrasound, beyond human hearing range. Digital bioacoustics and ecoacoustics help us hear these sounds. Imagine digital technology functioning like a planetary-scale hearing aid, enabling humans to record and decode nature’s sounds, from the Arctic to the Amazon.
Our newfound ability to listen to nature leads to astounding new insights into nonhuman behavior. We are now realizing that many more nonhumans are using sound to communicate with one another, in much more complex ways than previously understood. This enables insights into nonhuman acoustic communication both within and between species, providing new evidence of complexity in nonhuman communication and social organization. Digital technologies reveal the vast, unsuspected, and often truly surprising sonic landscape of plants and animals: Dolphins call each other by individual names, and, in response to the buzz of bees, flowers flood themselves with nectar. Turtle embryos, still in their shells, coordinate the timing of their births through sound. Coral larvae find their way home by sensing the symphony emanating from a reef’s aquatic life.
Third, scientists are using AI to decode patterns in nonhuman sound, which enables new insights into how nonhumans communicate while also enabling rudimentary attempts at two-way communication, mediated by robotics. In other words, we are using digital bioacoustics to create the basis for interspecies communication. Research teams are working on dictionaries in East African Elephant and Sperm Whale. They believe that we will one day soon invent a zoological version of Google Translate.
Digital technologies, in short, offer new ways of engaging with nonhuman agency and voice. The book sounds a cautionary note about the possible misuses of technology but ultimately argues that, with caveats and safeguards, bioacoustics offers humanity a powerful new window into the nonhuman world.
At this same time, we are discovering a new threat to nature: noise pollution. Experiments have demonstrated that many species are exquisitely sensitive to industrial and machine noise. The rapid increase in noise pollution over the past few decades—particularly in marine environments—is a major threat to environmental health. The book sounds a warning about the noise pollution threat. The silver lining: The benefits of reducing noise pollution are significant and immediate. And this helps humans, too, as we are also vulnerable to noise pollution, which causes increased stress and raises the risk of cardiovascular incidents, developmental delays, and even dementia.
MB: How does your book differ from other books on similar topics?
KB: The Sounds of Life focuses on how digital technology fundamentally changes and extends the human ability to listen to nature. I also explore cutting-edge research on the use of bioacoustics to better monitor, protect, and regenerate endangered species and ecosystems, from the Silicon Valley to the Great Barrier Reef, to the Arctic and the Amazon. The Sounds of Life makes an impassioned call to use digital bioacoustics to make a positive difference for environmental conservation.
MB: Who is your intended audience?
KB: The Sounds of Life is a popular science book that will, I hope, fundamentally change the public conversation about humanity’s relationship to the environment. The book is written in an accessible style and features a cast of characters ranging from scientists and conservationists to digital tech entrepreneurs. It offers readers electrifying stories of scientific discovery and unique journeys through the natural world.2
MB: Are you hopeful that as people come to appreciate nature’s soundscapes, they will care more about protecting the environment?
KB: Learning to listen to someone else is one of the first acts of love. As we listen to nonhumans communicate with one another and learn more about their worlds, we deepen our understanding. The communicative worlds of other species are truly astonishing. From this grows a sense of greater respect, about—and also delight in—the natural world. My hope is that people will start to listen wherever they live—downloading some of the apps mentioned in the book, or going on soundwalks. And, as they listen, I hope they will find their way to taking steps to protect and cherish the environment, wherever they are and however they can.
How Animals Sense the World Differently From Us. (A new book discusses how animals live in their own worlds and why they matter.)