Book Review: Nature’s Compass, by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould

Reviewed by Stephen J. Bodio
January 15, 2013
Nature's Compass book review

As opposed to Gifts of the Crow, James and Carol Gould’sNature’s Compass is concerned with abilities we do notseem to share with our fellow animals: the innate ability to navigate, to pinpoint one’s position on the globe. “Faced with what is to us an alien task in an unforgiving world, humans stand in awe of the judgment and precision with which animals use cues—often undetectable by us—that are frequently ambiguous and ephemeral.”

Humans tend to assume that animals’ senses are like their own. But this is not remotely true. “We are guilty of a condescending anthropomorphism, reading into other orders of beings our own blindnesses and computational limitations.” For instance: “pigeons and elephants, to name just two species, are equipped with ears that can pick up frequencies that are far below our lowest limits…in theory the noises made by winds passing over the Rocky Mountains could serve as an auditory landmark for a bird on the Mississippi.” And this is without even beginning to investigate such senses as the magnetic or the “map sense.”

Although this book does deal with such things as butterflies and sea turtles as well as birds, it does not take a birder or ornithologist to see that birds demonstrate these senses most dramatically, with such things as first-time overseas migrations. Birds also provide the perfect pilot for migration studies: the homing pigeon. Cornell’s William Keeton, and later former Cornell Lab of Ornithology director Charles Walcott, demonstrated much of what is known about magnetism and smell in animal orientation using them.

The Goulds remain endearingly optimistic about our ability to comprehend these senses. After finishing all of these fascinating pages I lean toward their earlier statement: “An animal’s ability to know its location and the direction of its goal is one of the greatest mysteries of science.”