By examining the diverse perceptual capacities of our fellow creatures, Sentient leads us to perceive ourselves in a new, organic context ... To her credit, Ms. Higgins doesn’t waste her time or ours trying to suggest what it is like to be a spookfish, an octopus, or a bar-tailed godwit. Rather, she digs deeply into the sensory capacities of some of the world’s most intriguing animals to better understand not only them, but the biological miracle of our own perceptions, many of which turn out to be surprisingly acute ... After reading Sentience, you’d have to be uncommonly insensible not to appreciate your own sensory powers even if, like most of us, you’ve been experiencing a Covid-generated, sensorily-deprived life for the last two years ... Nearly every chapter of Sentience is enlivened with the author’s conversations with scientists who did the groundbreaking work she explores ... Ms. Higgins’s most extraordinary achievement in an extraordinary book may be that in the course of her investigations she seems to have discovered a new sense: the sense of how to write compelling popular science.
Higgins keeps the lay reader engaged with her lyrical and lucid style, despite describing complex science (often at the molecular level), and skilfully incorporates individual human stories ... As a producer of natural history documentaries, Higgins makes popular science accessible – Sentient is a dizzying display of the evolutionary ingenuity not only of lifeforms, but also of zoologists, neuroscientists and biologists who have mapped new frontiers of knowledge. You may finish reading it and wish that humans could use that intelligence to stop the destruction of the habitats all of us live in.
Higgins skilfully connects these tales from the natural world to the experiences of people with an exceptional sensory repertoire. Through their experiences we grasp how much can be learned from other animals, and how your sensory reality may be quite distinct from mine ... Unfortunately, Higgins’s book is shadowed throughout by an incredible irony. In a treatise that means to educate its readers on the subject of animal sentience, example after example involves creatures that are killed and dissected or subjected to experimental harms. Mice are blinded, spiders are stoppered into test tubes for days on end, and animals are made into specimens so their cells can be microscopically analysed. Even octopuses’ neuron-rich arms are amputated in the name of scientific inquiry ... The material is gripping despite its disturbing aspects ... Thanks to Higgins’s flair for storytelling, Sentient successfully informs us about our own senses by exploring those of animals – 'successfully', at least, to the extent that we can suppress our distress about those amputated octopus arms.