Sounds like a book

David George Haskell’s Sounds Wild and Broken (2022) seeks to establish sound as a new vital sign for the environment. It takes on more than it bargained for.

★★★☆☆

A microphone points to the inside of a copy of David George Haskell's 'Sounds Wild and Broken'.

As far as we know, for more than nine-tenths of its history, Earth lacked communicative sounds. The sonic diversity that we witness in today’s oceans, forests, and cities evolved between 150 million and 100 million years ago, after 1 billion years of wind and water, 3 billion years of bacterial hum and quiet animal motion, and 100 million years of chirping crickets.

The insignificance of this latest sonic era, compared to the billions of years that came before it, reminds us of our insignificance in Earth’s history as a whole. And yet, as David George Haskell argues in Sounds Wild and Broken, we have used our presence in this trivial chunk of deep time to make a colossal impact on our world.

Drawing from ecology, sound studies, anthropology, and archaeology, Haskell walks us through the origins of sound. He paints a stark picture of what is happening to the Earth’s nonhuman sounds—sounds which predate communicative language, agriculture, and modern technology. It’s an unusual but surprisingly vivid lens to crystallise features of our history and natural world that we often take for granted.

The recent human-provoked decline in insect diversity, for example, would not normally be framed as an acoustic problem, especially in a popular science book. Neither would the exclusion of indigenous communities from the forests that they understand how to care for, or the clearing of forest for pine plantations. But Haskell shows how each of these social and ecological downturns comes with a distinct loss in the diversity of its soundscape; pine plantations support much less diverse birdsong than the hickory and oak forests that they often replace.

Haskell excels at provoking changes in perspective in his reader—pushing you away from thinking of the oceans as visually rich but sonically unimportant, and away from thinking about cities as the noisy antithesis of nature. In other places he uses sound as a gateway to pose questions with a distinctly philosophical flavour. What can we know about the past? What can we know about the experiences of others? Does it make sense to say that shrimp, fish, bacteria, birds, insects, and humans all ‘hear’ the same sound when our physiological experiences of hearing are so different? What defines sound? That it’s audible by us? Or the physics of the type of signal it is? And what counts as language? Humans like to reserve the term for ourselves—but on what basis?

That the book provokes such questions is one of its main strengths, but unfortunately also its main weakness. Sounds Wild and Broken is not a work of ethnomusicology, or a work which carefully advances our understanding of philosophy. It is a book about biology. Haskell does well to connect bioacoustics with deep and unanswered questions that should appeal even to readers who aren’t invested in the study of sound—but he would have done even better to leave them unanswered.

Instead, the book’s broad scope results in some equally broad generalisations: the idea that “most human music blends sound into a single experience that varies through time in pitch and amplitude, but usually not over space,” for example, bypasses the field of choreomusicology, the study of music and movement. When Haskell writes that  “almost all the places where humans gather to be fed by the fruits of culture” convey “the message of dominance by a single human architectural plan,” he too hastily hands cultural dominance to “performance venues, lecture halls, museums, cinemas, and places of worship.” Yet some of the most timeless and universal cultural practices have developed and persevered beside campfires, on beaches, in forest clearings, and by burial sites.

Haskell often writes, in a similar tone, as if it is an uncontested truth that we are more likely to empathise with creatures that sound like us. But really this is an open question; some research, for example, suggests that empathy depends on perceived vulnerability, not perceived similarity to our own species. It is valuable and provocative to raise the possibility that by being able to hear a species, we might care more about its wellbeing—but unproductive and unconvincing to speak as if that connection is “the necessary sensory foundation for human ethics.”

These generalisations often appear as brief statements with little connection to their surroundings. Although they were intended, perhaps, to tie the science-heavy content together, the book would have been more cohesive without them. At the tail end of a chapter that’s ostensibly about vocal learning, Haskell connects the invention of the written word to the the decline in animal populations, writing that “[w]e humans, distracted by our newfound powers, turned inward and largely forgot how to learn from the voices of other animal species. If this is true, then by reawakening the practice of attending to the voices of others, we will dim the destructive impulse and renew the creative powers of listening and learning.” Perhaps the invention of the written word did have a role to play in the development of our inattention to the environment, and maybe by listening more to other voices, we would gain some of our attentiveness back. But Haskell’s conjecture is surely an overstatement; it takes away from the fascinating and research-informed material on vocal learning that he spent the rest of the chapter developing.

The book finishes with a narrative about sound’s role in the early evolution of the universe, stating that “our bodies—and the thought that emerges within them—are made from the remnants of acoustic waves in … plasma.” That is true in a sense, but only if we adopt a very liberal understanding of what counts as sound. Technically speaking, sound is any pressure wave caused by the movement of energy through a medium. This is what allows Haskell to conclude that “stars were seeded by ancient sound waves.” But low-frequency expansions and compressions in plasma are a far cry from our everyday notion of sound as noise we can hear. The sound of the early universe resonated 47 octaves below the lowest note on a modern piano. The connection between sound and the origins of the universe does not give us any meaningful insight into why our bodies, or the thought that emerges within them, have evolved in the way that they have.

All of this sits alongside Haskell’s earlier claim that “music embodies interconnection and belonging … even when we wrap ourselves in architectures and cultural practices that evince separation and superiority,” as if  “music itself” is always a force for good. But sound is not magic: like any other performance art, music is a social practice, and its meaning has everything to do with politics, culture and context. The notion that social harms can be undone by “music’s unifying powers” if only we “choose to listen” ignores the damage that can be wrought by performance practices which reinforce outdated norms of cultural superiority.

The resulting narrative can feel as if it is trying too hard to justify its relevance. Anyone who has picked up the book is likely to be interested in insights about sound and nature for their own sake. It’s never going to be a thrilling read for someone who doesn’t have that interest—but its focus on grand, sometimes speculative claims makes it, in my opinion, less enjoyable for those who do. In the same vein, Haskell’s descriptions of sound can in places feel forced: “[i]nto the cloud of shrimp sound come stammering bursts of knocks. Each batch lasts a second or two, a cluster of ten or more taps. Then a pause of five or so seconds, more regular taps, interrupted by occasional hesitations.” As detailed as it is, the prose does not come close to the acoustic experience it is trying to emulate.

None of this takes away from Haskell’s demonstration, elsewhere, of the value of sound—in unique, surprising, and concrete ways. By describing how birdsong can be used to assess a forest’s biodiversity, he shows how sounds that we might first think of as merely aesthetically valuable are in fact essential to our understanding of the environment, a theme that runs throughout the book. By drawing attention to how the policing of noise varies along racial, cultural, and socio-economic lines, he offers an introduction to the politics of noise.

Perhaps most importantly, he shows how sound technologies play an essential democratic role, by putting environmental monitoring into the hands of local communities—and, in the case of remote monitoring, making it less labour-intensive. Sound should not be held up as the answer to all of our troubles. But at a time when citizen science is becoming a powerfully instructive force on issues from insect diversity to galaxy detection, its value as both scientific and local knowledge should not be underestimated. ▪️


Sounds Wild and Broken. £20. 377pp. Faber.