Humanity has always been a noisy animal. As long ago as 1700 BC, a Babylonian god was complaining that the “noise of mankind has become too much./I am losing sleep over their racket.” Cities, where more than half of us now live, have only got louder. A New York subway train clocks in at 98 decibels; even the background hum of a busy office can rise to 65 decibels. We live immersed in a world of human sound.
But not only is human noise a new thing in the world, all communicative sound is new: for nine-tenths of Earth’s history there was none. Life existed on the planet for three billion years before the first intimations of hearing and sound-making, and the late evolution of those faculties gives us a kinship with all other listening things.
More than that, David George Haskell argues in his exhilarating new book, Sounds Wild and Broken, evolution and sound-making go hand in hand. Sound, he argues, is history. The first sounds on Earth – of water, of wind, of thunder, and so on – are those we can still hear today, a kind of sonic ground beneath the infinitely varied palette of living voice and movement. When a bird sings, he writes, “the combined experience of thousands of ancestors flows to the air”. If you stop to listen to the music of the cricket, the oldest singing animal, you are hearing the sound of the super-continent Pangaea, because that is where they first evolved. The larynx, common to all modern vertebrate animals, first developed in the lungfish; we hear with modified fish ears.
On one level, this is all truism: everything we experience, sound included, is a product of evolution. But, as Haskell shows, our experience of the planet’s sonic phenomena is so circumscribed and muted that its full majesty is almost an undiscovered world for us. Some of this is due to what he calls the ‘perceptual box’ created by the physical limits of our hearing: evolution is a process of specialisation, and it has left us simply unable to hear much of life on earth. Technology is changing that: we can now listen to everything from whale song to insects chewing wood.
But there is also the issue of our sheer inattentiveness – in the modern west at least – to the sound of life. Haskell writes eloquently about the paucity of our language – “hobbled by weak verbs” he says – when describing the heard; he compares it unfavourably to the abundant vocabulary for conjuring up motion. It follows that one of the many joys of the book is his ability to cajole language into conjuring unknown sounds in the mind of the reader; some of the writing is breathtaking. It is at its strongest where it not only makes the case for listening better, but privileges the sense of hearing itself: it might be subtitled ‘Towards an Aesthetic of Sound’.
This inattentiveness matters, Haskell says, both because of the auditory riches we are missing, and because it is leading us to destroy or degrade that plenitude. And, as he makes clear, sound and hearing have been instrumental in evolution in manifold ways, allowing species to refine their adaptiveness to specialised habitats through mating and predation, among things. The katydid, for example, has learned to mimic the mating sounds of female cicadas, luring amorous males to their doom. In this, the katydid seems to sum up the centrality of sound to life and death on earth in one free lunch.
Individual sounds are as fragile a phenomena as there is. Every natural sound has loss in-built. By definition transitory, a sound emerges from silence and returns to silence: a synecdoche for life itself, a sound is a brief moment of vibration, of movement in the air, that must always resolve to stillness. Recording, Haskell writes, “is an anchor against the tide of forgetting”, but the tide is rising fast. All the more reason why we should pay attention, and listen the best we can while we can, and protect the planet of sound even as sounds themselves wither and decay into oblivion. We need to ensure those silences don’t become permanent.
Haskell makes an eloquent, often beautiful, and powerful case for the importance of listening – and of listening before it is too late. Sounds Wild and Broken is a deeply rewarding experience, and its message will resonate with and enrich the lives of all those who read it.
This review first appeared in the summer 2022 edition of New Humanist.