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Tuning in to the world of nonhuman sound: Q&A with author Karen Bakker

Big-brained animals like elephants and sperm whales use what could be considered language. Image by Marthijn Brinks via Unsplash (Public domain).

  • “The Sounds of Life” is a new book by University of British Columbia geography professor Karen Bakker that explores our understanding of nonhuman sound.
  • Through the stories she has gathered from around the world, Bakker reveals how new technology has given us “a planetary hearing aid,” both to better understand how nonhuman life uses sound and the ways in which these sounds can help monitor and protect species.
  • Bakker also investigates the role of traditional knowledge and deep listening to help researchers tune in to the sounds around us.
  • Mongabay spoke with Karen Bakker in September.

In her new book, Karen Bakker relates a story from Brazilian researcher Rafael José de Menezes Bastos that crystallizes how differently some humans process and respond to the sounds around them.

Bastos has spent time living and traveling with the Kamayurá Indigenous people in Brazil. Once, a Kamayurá friend named Ekwa had asked Bastos if he could “hear the fish singing” as the two glided across the surface of a lake in a canoe. Bastos didn’t know what Ekwa was talking about. Years later, when the anthropologist heard recordings of actual fish songs, he realized Ekwa had been perceiving something more than a whimsical “flight of imagination.”

“Bastos’s ears had been closed, but Ekwa’s ears were open,” Bakker writes in The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the World of Animals and Plants, published by Princeton University Press.

The book explores what nonhuman sound can teach us about our changing world — and ourselves. Bastos’s experience led him to appreciate the value of deep listening as practiced by Indigenous cultures like the Kamayurá and, as he put it, to see Ekwa as “more like a diligent ichthyologist than an inspired poet, a victim of hallucination or holy rapture.”

Karen Bakker, author of The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the World of Animals and Plants. Images courtesy of Paul Joseph/UBC Brand & Marketing (left) and Princeton University Press (right).

Later in The Sounds of Life, Bakker quotes bioacoustician Michel André about the importance of learning to listen.

“When we work in the Amazon, we hear many mysterious sounds through our microphones,” André told Bakker in an interview. “We can record them, but we don’t understand them. Local communities are able to explain these sounds to us; living in place, they have the wisdom and knowledge to identify the sounds, and understand their ecological context.”

Bakker’s book is full of stories of wonder and curiosity about the world of sound that constantly surrounds humanity. In some cases, sorting out where those sounds are coming from and what they might mean is about tuning into frequencies that might sit squarely in the range of human hearing but that our brains may have decided to ignore. But taking stock of the vast array of nonhuman-produced sound has also experienced something of a revolution in recent decades, as new technology has allowed us to listen in on a whole range of species.

Not only does digital technology enable us to record sound beyond the bounds of what our ears can perceive, says Bakker, a professor of geography at Canada’s University of British Columbia and currently on sabbatical at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in the U.S. New technology has also given researchers what she calls “a planetary-scale hearing aid,” with the ability to record sounds happening all over the world.

The results of this massive amount of data — and the computing power to process it — allow researchers to hypothesize about the stories this information could be telling us. Analyses have added weight to the argument that big-brained animals like elephants and sperm whales use what could be considered language, calling into question the assumption that only humans are capable of such sophisticated communication. And today, recording devices allow scientists to keep tabs on biodiversity levels, and underwater microphones can warn of the presence of whales around busy ports so that ship captains can slow down — vital to saving whale species facing declining numbers and shifting prey sources as a result of climate change.

Humpback whale calls. Analyses have added weight to the argument that big-brained animals like elephants and whales use what could be considered language. Image by Vivek Kumar via Unsplash (Public domain).

“There’s so much wonderful work being done,” Bakker told Mongabay in an interview ahead of the book’s publication on Oct. 18.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: What are the origins of this book?

Karen Bakker: I went to Stanford [University] on sabbatical in 2015 with a project about the idea that nonhumans could exercise political voice, which sounds like a very abstract, theoretical, academic topic. That stems from my long-standing interest in the ways in which digital technology can enable new insights into nonhuman nature.

I encountered a lot of skepticism, and I realized that one of the things that would be helpful to clarify and present to a general audience is the large amount of scientific research that has now been done. Much [of that], but not all, uses digital technology [to document] how nonhumans use complex communication and are able to convey all manner of information through sound in a way that we had not previously suspected, in a way that runs counter to some of the dominant assumptions in Western science and philosophy. What I had taken for granted became something that needed to be discussed and demonstrated, and that became The Sounds of Life. It’s a prequel to the next book I’m writing [called A Digital Green New Deal], which is about the political implications of these insights.

As I delved into the research, I just learned more and more about how fascinating this work is, the expansive nature of nonhuman communication across many more species than we had previously understood, and the universal importance of sound for nonhuman species. We can see that, both in the studies of species that can emit or react to sound or [in] species that are sensitive to noise pollution.

That brought me to what I think is one of the most profound insights of the science: that sound is a universal and perhaps older mechanism of communicating information in nature than sight. When life evolved on Earth, before creatures had eyes, they had cilia. Cilia are essentially one of the major mechanisms that are used to send sound. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. There’s a great evolutionary advantage to being sensitive to other creatures and sound as a primordial way of conveying that information.

That was the journey. It sprang out of this other project, which I’m now continuing. This is the first part of a trilogy, and now I’m writing the second.

Fish in the Rio Formoso, Brazil. Fish make sounds to communicate that we don’t often hear. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Mongabay: What’s the third book going to be about?

Karen Bakker: The third book is about biodigital convergence. It’s more future-oriented: What does the future hold when we are truly able to manipulate both the digital code and biological code in a world where the boundaries between machines, nonhumans and humans are increasingly porous?

Mongabay: You start out in the introduction to The Sounds of Life talking about humans being poor listeners. Do you mean that we lack the functional ability to hear certain sounds, or are we just bad at listening?

Karen Bakker: I think you’re asking, are we poor listeners on a physical level? Or are we poor listeners psychologically?

Mongabay: Yes, exactly.

Karen Bakker: Both, of course. Human hearing range is limited. We simply cannot hear in the infrasonic and ultrasonic [range]. In essence, much of the communication that goes on through sonic means on Earth is not audible to us. That’s something that’s innate in our physiology. Digital technologies function like a planetary-scale hearing aid. They let us overcome that limitation. They extend our sensory perception beyond our innate physical capacities, which is why I’m so excited about the worlds that opens up to us.

On the question of, are we poor listeners psychologically, I think there are some stories in the book that illustrate that quite nicely. If you live in a culture which privileges sight over sound, if you live in a culture in which your ear has not been trained to listen for nonhuman noises, I think it’s quite easy to block them out [and] to not be attentive. There’s that anecdote about [Rafael José de Menezes Bastos], an anthropologist in Brazil. In the moment, he thought this was a delusional question, because, of course, fish don’t make noise. Later on, he realizes that, in fact, they do, but he had been incapable of hearing them. To his credit, [he] later admits he was wrong.

I think there is a profound shutting of our ears to nonhuman noise in cultures that are very urbanized or industrialized. The book is a bit of a call to awakening, if you will, to cultivate that faculty of listening and hearing. I think when people are in a space, where they’re actually listening to nonhuman sounds, it stops them in their tracks. It’s a pretty profound experience. As many experiences in nature are, it can be a very transcendent moment when one is really listening.

An Indigenous man from the Tikuna community paddling a dugout canoe on a tributary of the Amazon. Bakker says there is a profound shutting of our ears to nonhuman noise in cultures that are very urbanized or industrialized. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Mongabay: In the book, you talk about the importance of deep listening as a form of traditional knowledge, which can reveal much about nature’s sounds. Tell me about that.

Karen Bakker: Digital listening, the focus of The Sounds of Life, is just one way we can open our ears to nature’s sounds. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes beautifully about deep listening in Braiding Sweetgrass. In Hungry Listening, Dylan Robinson writes about the importance of decolonizing our listening practices. Contemporary Indigenous sound studies has a lot to teach us.

Mongabay: What is your sense of the skepticism among Western scientists today about some of the things that you deal with in the book? Is there more acceptance of the role of nonhuman sound today?

Karen Bakker: I think there’s skepticism about multiple claims made in the book. The first is skepticism about the universality of sound as a mechanism of communicating information. The book cites the work of over 4,000 researchers, so there’s quite a large and rapidly growing body of Western scientific evidence that demonstrates that many more species than previously suspected are sensitive to sound, react to sound and, in some cases, can emit sound. I think that skepticism is reducing in the face of a large number of scientific experiments across a broad range of species. We haven’t done experiments with all species yet, but the range of species is pretty impressive.

A second source of skepticism is about a different claim of the book, which is that the sounds embody information and thus represent some form of more or less complex communication. There are a smaller number of studies that demonstrate this to be the case, that the sounds are not devoid of information. They have informational content to which both plants and animals react in very specific ways. And they’re able to exhibit very nuanced responses to different types of sounds. In the book, [there is] one experiment where plants are sensitive to sounds that represent a predator or just represent rain falling. That’s pretty fascinating.

The third source of skepticism would be about the claim that is the most debatable in the book, which is that we should understand language as a spectrum across the tree of life. It is not that humans alone possess language and no one else does. Of course, that depends on how you define language, and if you define it in very anthropomorphic, human-centered terms, you’re going to have a much smaller window of acceptance of that claim. If you’re willing to think of more biocentric definitions of language, perhaps you’ll be more willing to accept that claim.

According to experiments, plants are sensitive to sounds that represent a predator or represent rain falling. Image via MaxPixel (Public domain).

I’ll add that the research is fast advancing on that latter point. In chapter nine, I refer to the work of two groups that are using artificial intelligence to map the patterns of whale language — sperm whales in particular, because they’re social. They have culture. We know that they have very definitive dialects in the sounds they make. Their stable social units persist over time. They have very, very large brains. All of that makes it quite likely that if we’re going to find language in the nonhuman world in a manner similar to how we define human language, a species like sperm whales is a good place to start. Elephants are also explored in the book.

This point about language is still very much debatable, but at least we’re now devising experiments to try to figure this out, because for a long time, we just assumed it was not possible. Now we’re asking, what if?

Mongabay: There is certainly an element of pure curiosity about the world of sound. But there are also ways in which scientists are using these insights to address problems like climate change and biodiversity loss, right?

Karen Bakker: We can employ our newfound listening capacity [to] simply eavesdrop on animals and plants. And it’s fascinating and delightful. Who knew they made all these sounds? Who knew that turtle embryos made sounds to one another through their shells before they hatch [to] coordinate the moment of their birth? These are just beautiful insights.

Beyond that, we can actually use these as monitoring tools to tell us a lot about the environment that we’re not otherwise able to learn. It turns out that sound is a very, very effective way of assessing the presence or absence of species. The eco-acoustic signature of soundscapes is a very revelatory and fairly low-cost means of assessing ecosystems. We’re now able to exponentially ramp up our monitoring capacity, and that may indeed accelerate conservation efforts. One can imagine, as discussed in the last chapter of the book, a world where eco-acoustic indices become a standard part of the toolkit for environmental assessment and conservation. [In some cases,] they already are.

Beyond that, the use of bioacoustics is a very powerful monitoring tool. There is a smaller group of scientists working to use sound to regenerate ecosystems. The coral [story] in the book is the best example of this, where experiments have shown that by playing soundtracks of healthy reefs, you can accelerate the recolonization of dead or dying reefs by coral and fish larvae. Essentially, it’s like music therapy for nonhumans. It’s a hopeful message that, [in] waking up to this amazing world of nonhuman sound, we may also be able to use this knowledge to better monitor, protect, and even regenerate ecosystems.

Experiments have shown that by playing soundtracks of healthy reefs, we can accelerate the recolonization of dead or dying reefs by coral and fish larvae. Image by Renata Romeo / Ocean Image Bank.

Mongabay: What can people do if they want to get involved in this sort of research or find new ways to listen to the world around them?

Karen Bakker: There are a number of apps you can get on your smartphone [that] you can use to listen to the sounds made by wild animals in real time. The Orcasound app is a really fun one. Other apps allow you to identify species making specific sounds, like BirdGenie. It’s kind of like Shazam for birds. [It’s] fabulous.

[There are also] soundwalks and sonic walks. This is something anyone can do. I provide a bunch of links to different soundwalk ideas where you can literally be moving through the environment but in an attuned way and learning while you listen.

People who want to go one step further can actually volunteer to be a citizen scientist. A scientist might put audio recordings online, and they get human volunteers to listen to them and annotate them. Those are three ways that you can get involved.

Banner image: Big-brained animals like elephants and sperm whales use what could be considered language. Image by Marthijn Brinks via Unsplash (Public domain).

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Citation:

De Menezes Bastos, R. J. (2013). Apùap world hearing revisited: Talking with ‘Animals’, ‘Spirits’ and other beings, and listening to the apparently inaudible. Ethnomusicology Forum22(3), 287-305. doi:10.1080/17411912.2013.845364

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