An Immense World, by Ed Yong

Why this book: Selected by my Science Fiction reading group, and though not “science fiction” per se, the science facts it reveals almost seem like science fiction.

Summary in 3 Sentences:  Author Ed Yong takes the readers on a tour of the wide variety of methods by which other creatures from all dimensions – insects, fish, mammals, reptiles even bacteria, spiders perceive their environments. These various sensory methods, from enhanced sensitivities to odors, to different spectra of light, to ability to hear sounds at a wide spectrum of frequencies, to echolocation, to creating electrical fields and sensing disturbances in those fields, to reading the earth’s magnetic field and more – are all adaptations that evolved over millennia  to help these creatures evade predators and find food in their particular environment – what Yong calls their “Umwelt.”  He concludes by describing how most species do not rely on a single sense, but on multiple senses that they integrate to help them survive and prosper, and then how many species have adapted or failed to adapt to human influenced pollution of the sensory environment.

My Impressions: A wonderful book which opens the readers eyes to how limited – anthropocentric – is our perspective on our world.  In fact this book reveals whole “universes” that exist all around us that we don’t perceive but that other creatures do.  It is akin to reading about human cultures very different from our own, and having the scales fall from our eyes revealing the narrowness of perspective that comes from taking for granted that how we perceive the world, is indeed how the world is. This book forces the reader to reappraise our conception of “reality.”   Reading about the capabilities of species of animals from as small as insects, to as well known and large as elephants and whales is almost like a science fiction novel – what these creatures can sense and do is almost magical. 

And Jong describes and writes about these insights in a most engaging and charming way – with enough science and footnotes to establish him as a legitimate scientist, but with a gift for writing in a way that will fascinate the a reader like me.  He writes with a sense of whimsy and fascination (which are contagious!) and sprinkles his book with interesting personal anecdotes from his own exploration of the topic as well as many from the numerous scientists and biologists that he visited and consulted in his research. I was not surprised to see An Immense World on several top 10 rankings of best books of 2022.

Jong begins An Immense World with an Introduction entitled “The Only True Voyage” in which he introduces the reader to his adventure of exploring how other animals live in their sensory bubbles – and thereby revealing how we humans also live in our own sensory bubble, and he explains why he calls this an “Umwelt” (the German word for environment or surroundings.) He explains how in the book he will refer to stimuli  and receptors which are part of sensors which turn stimuli into information. He also admits to the humility of this adventure – that we still know so little and that new details, and in some cases entirely new senses are being discovered regularly, and he notes that our efforts in this regard are biased by our own senses and in particular by our primary sense – vision.  He reminds us that “When we pay attention to other animals, our own world expands and deepens.”  

Up front, he tells us that all creatures senses evolve to support and enhance survival and procreation in the specific environment in which the creatures finds themselves, and those environments are as distinct as the bottom of the deep, blue sea, tropical jungles, or the middle of a blazing desert.  He reminds us that “The first step to understanding another animals’s Umwelt is to understand what it uses its senses for.”  In the course of his book, we are introduced to animals with amazing senses with capabilities that are way beyond those of human senses,  but which suit that animal in its Umwelt – creatures such as mantis shrimp, jumping spiders, naked more-rats, fire-chaser beetles, star-nosed moles, as well as animals with which we are more familiar, such as sea otters, elephants, vampire bats, rattle snakes.

Jong divides his book into thirteen chapters each of which addresses a sense that we may take for granted, and (falsely) assume that other creatures senses must mimic our own.  He divests us of this misconception throughout the book.


  1. Leaking Sacks of Chemicals – Smells and tastes
  2. Endless Ways of Seeing – Light
  3. Rurple Grurple, Yurple – Color
  4. The Unwanted Sense – Pain
  5. So Cool – Heat
  6. A Rough Sense – Contact and Flow
  7. The Rippling Ground – Surface Vibrations
  8. All Ears – Sound
  9. A Silent World Shouts Back – Echoes
  10. Living Batteries – Electric Fields
  11. They Know the Way – Magnetic Fields

He then concludes with

Chapter 12 Every Window at Once- Uniting the Senses 

And finally

13. Save the Quiet, Preserve the Dark – threatened Sensescapes.

Each chapter is a cornucopia of fascinating information about how different creatures experience the world in ways that are hard for us to imagine.  And just as fascinating as what we learn about these very different senses is how biologists ingeniously run experiments to test and learn about how these creatures sense the world.   Then he adds a bit of humility, beginning his chapter on “pain’ by noting that “We can chart how an animal reacts to what it senses, but it’s much harder to know how it feels.  And that distinction becomes especially difficult – and important -when thinking about pain.”

At the end of the book, he describes how for us and for many species, different senses work together, to back each other up, or compensate for miscalculations.  He writes “Each sense has pros and cons, and each stimulus is useful in some circumstances and useless in others. That’s why animals tap into as many streams of information as their nervous systems can handle, using the strengths of ones sense to compensate for the shortcomings of another.  (p323)  One of the most interesting sections was when he described how blind people often learn to use echo-location to compensate for lack of vision – and some become  surprisingly adept at it.

He concludes in Chapter 13 with a cautionary note about our efforts to preserve or enhance the habitability of our Umwelt for humans.  He gives numerous examples of how well-meaning efforts to make our Umwelt more user-friendly for us, can disrupt whole ecosystems for other creatures, whose senses are more sensitive to changes than ours. When we change any aspect of an environment – light, sound, temperature, color, moisture, etc – we may be significantly disrupting an umwelt that other creatures have adapted themselves to over millennia.  He gives a fascinating example of the unintended consequences of streetlights in a parking lot near the Tetons, or streetlights near the beach in Florida. 

There are so many amazing examples and stories in this book. A friend of mine who’d read it told me that when he hears a bird chirping, he now asks himself what parts of its song am he is not hearing, sounds outside of our capacity to hear that communicate with other birds, to tell them of food opportunities, or danger or mating opportunities. 

This will be a book that will change the way you see the world, and  (I suspect) add some very appropriate humility to our view of ourselves as the masters of the world we live in.  


About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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1 Response to An Immense World, by Ed Yong

  1. Scott says:

    Science fictions are smothered just when liable to offer more information and opportunity than the guarded orthodoxies they challenge.

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