How to Speak Whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication
In the mid-seventeenth century, in Delft in the Dutch Republic, there lived an unusual man called Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. This is him:
Van Leeuwenhoek was a businessman, a draper. He was also a high-tech inventor. The previous fifty years in Europe had seen the rapid development of tools for magnification—telescopes and microscopes. Most worked on similar principles, with two glass lenses fitted into a tube. Looking through these lenses gave the user superhuman powers, bringing distant planets and tiny objects into better view. They were also very rare: Few people had learned how to grind, polish, and fit the glasses, and many guarded their secrets closely. For van Leeuwenhoek, as an apprentice draper, “microscopes” (from the Greek words for “small” and “to look at”) were also the tools of his trade, useful for inspecting the quality of the fabrics he bought and sold. The early microscopes could magnify up to nine times, while later iterations could zoom in farther. But the multilens design had a flaw—the more they magnified, the more distorted the lenses made the image, and above about twenty times magnification it was hard to make anything out.
In Delft, van Leeuwenhoek had been secretly pioneering a different technique. Instead of using a series of lenses, he became expert at crafting tiny individual spheres of glass, some just over a millimeter in diameter, which he mounted onto folding metal brackets. By placing an object onto the bracket, holding the glass sphere very close to his eye, and looking through it into a source of light, he found he could magnify his subject by up to 275 times and with little distortion. He is thought to have made more than five hundred microscopes during his lifetime. Recent studies have found the focusing capabilities and clarity of his devices comparable to those of modern light microscopes.
Van Leeuwenhoek did not just use his revolutionary magnifying technology to inspect the weave of the cloth he sold. He explored the world beyond his trade. While other microscopists had enlarged and explored the visible—things like insects, or cork—van Leeuwenhoek discovered entire invisible realms. In a thimbleful of water from a local lake, empty to the naked eye, he was astonished to spy hordes of “animalcules”—tiny animals, bacteria, and single-celled organisms. Everywhere he looked, he found scurrying swarms of previously unknown creatures: in the world around us—in rainwater and well water, and within our bodies—samples scraped from his mouth and taken from intestines. Van Leeuwenhoek was entranced, writing that “no more pleasant sight has yet met my eye than this of so many thousands of living creatures in one small drop of water, all huddling and moving.”
At the time, people were unable to see the eggs of fleas, eels, or mussels, so they assumed they didn’t exist. Rather than growing from eggs as larger animals did, it was believed that these small animals came into being through a process called “spontaneous generation,” whereby fleas could spring into life from dust, mussels from sand, and eels from dew. Van Leeuwenhoek’s tools revealed the previously imperceptible eggs of these animals, and doomed this theory. He was obsessed with the new world he had discovered: red blood cells, bacteria, the structure of salt, the muscle cells of whale meat. He investigated the still-mysterious world of human reproduction, perceiving within semen tiny moving bodies with tails—sperm. When I think of this moment, I wonder both how astonishing this must have been, and whose semen he got hold of.
Across the Channel, in England, the natural philosopher Robert Hooke had himself been experimenting with microscopes, adding to and modifying their lenses and exploring the structures of snowflakes and the hairs of fleas. The drawings he published of these hidden worlds caused a public sensation. The diarist Samuel Pepys stayed up until 2 a.m. reading Hooke’s book in bed. Poring over the fold-out illustrations, he wrote that it was “the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life.” Van Leeuwenhoek wrote to Hooke and the other learned experimenters of the Royal Society (then called the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge) and reported his findings. At first, many did not believe the “exceedingly curious and industrius” merchant, despite credible witnesses. How could there be whole domains of life completely invisible to us? Van Leeuwenhoek complained that he “oft-times hear it said that I do but tell fairy tales about the little animals.” It didn’t help that he closely guarded his microscopes and his methods for crafting them.
In London, Hooke worked to reproduce van Leeuwenhoek’s results. It took many attempts to replicate the exquisite, tiny glass spheres, but when he finally succeeded on November 15, 1677, he gazed into rainwater and beheld tiny moving creatures; “surprized at this so wonderful a spectacle” he, too, “verily believed” them to be animals. Seeing was believing. Van Leeuwenhoek was duly made a fellow of the Society and is today widely acknowledged as the father of microbiology. His inventions allowed us to view the microscopic life that has always surrounded us—but just as crucially, he possessed a mind curious enough to look where others assumed nothing would be found.
A few centuries on and our culture has changed. When someone sneezes in the street, you picture the germs spraying across you. When you worry that your mole looks a bit funny, you conjure up visions of tiny cancerous cells furiously dividing. Knowing about the microscopic world changes our lives: We wash our hands and wounds, we create and freeze embryos. We know that hidden within each of our bodies there are as many bacteria as human cells. An invisible ecosystem. His decision to look has transformed our behaviors, our cultures, and how we see ourselves.
This is the legacy of van Leeuwenhoek’s invention. We cannot unsee what he first spied.
What further invisible worlds might we now discover? You are already part of one new frontier. Since the seventeenth century our tools for looking have proliferated, and many are now pointed toward ourselves: Security cameras track you walking down the street, the thermometer and gyroscope in your iPhone senses you shifting in your sleep as the room cools. So much is now tracked: When you sleep and when you dream. Where you live and where you go. Your fingerprints, voiceprints, iris pattern, gait, weight, ovulation, body temperature, likely infections, breast scans, the steps you take, the shape of your face and the expressions it can pull. What you like, what you don’t. Who you like, who you don’t. The songs and colors and objects you are drawn to. What turns you on. What you think is funny. Your name and your avatars and handles. The words you use, the accent with which you speak. And we’re just getting started. You are now remembered not just by your friends and family, but by computers you have never met—what they sense of you is crystallized in data and transmitted through the internet to vast servers, where it sits with the data of billions of other humans. Your data are accumulating faster than any memoir you could write, and when you die, they will outlast you. And within these data, other machines are trained to find invisible patterns.
For the past couple of decades, many of our brightest engineers, mathematicians, psychologists, computer scientists, and anthropologists have been scooped from universities to work for Alphabet, Meta, Baidu, Tencent, the other giant information corporations, as well as the governments of the United States and China. In the 1940s, these minds might have been set to work on splitting the atom at the Manhattan Project; in the 1960s, they might have been employed designing spacecraft at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Today, clever young people are richly rewarded for finding new ways to record, amass, and analyze human data. Using invisible patterns in language, their machines can translate between human tongues without ever being taught how to speak one; using hidden patterns in faces, they can tell when a human smile is genuine better than a human can. We are begrudgingly accepting this accumulation of our data, as well as the fact that we can be manipulated by those who understand these patterns within it.
In all this, it is easy to forget that we are animals, human animals. All these patterns—our bodies, behaviors, and communications—are biology. The tools we have made for finding invisible patterns in humans can work on other species, too. Like van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes—useful for evaluating cloth, but also good for discovering the origins of fleas—many of our tracking devices, sensors, and pattern recognition machines were originally developed to sell things to people effectively but are now being turned outward, toward other species and the rest of nature. And they are, in the process, revolutionizing biology.
This book is about some of the pioneers in this new age of discovery: the decryption of the natural world. It is a journey to the frontiers where big data meets big beasts, where silicon-based intelligences are finding patterns in carbon-based life. It focuses on some of the most mysterious and fascinating animals—whales and dolphins—and how recent technology has radically changed what we know about their hidden lives and capabilities. It explores the way underwater robots, massive data sets, artificial intelligence (AI), and changes in human culture are combining to transform how biologists decode cetacean communications.
This book is about learning to speak whale. About whether, with all that is changing in our science, technology, and culture, such a thing could ever be possible. As we turn our pattern-finding machines away from ourselves and focus them on the utterances of other species, I have come to wonder if we will be changed by what we find, much as the microscopic worlds that van Leeuwenhoek saw through his glass spheres changed us. Could our discoveries compel us to protect these animals?
I know this all sounds a bit far-fetched. I thought so, too. But I didn’t just come up with this story: It found me, and I stumbled after it. It began in 2015 when a thirty-ton humpback whale leapt out of the sea and landed on top of me.
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