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28 February 2024

Arik Kershenbaum Q&A: “I’m happiest in a hammock, being woken by gibbon song”

The zoologist on emigrating to the UK, what the Civil War cost America, and the serenity of a world before humans.

By New Statesman

Arik Kershenbaum, a fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, was born in the US in 1965. He is a leading expert in animal vocal communication and a member of the board of advisers for Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Meti).

What’s your earliest memory?

Taking a steamship from the USA to the UK in 1969. I didn’t find out until much later why we did that – my father had been hounded out of his job as a professor for his opposition to the Vietnam War. But I was astounded that the windows were rectangles – I had assumed they would be circular portholes!

Who are your heroes?

As a child it was Hazel from Watership Down. I liked that he had to get on and be a leader, even though he didn’t have the slightest idea how. I feel that way often.

What book last changed your thinking?

Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses Grant. Despite having lived in Tennessee for two years, I had no idea just how titanic the upheaval of the US Civil War and the Reconstruction period was. What a wasted opportunity for a country that could have begun its path to social integration 100 years earlier.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I struggle to find any politician worthy of respect. However, I’m unlikely to forget Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated prime minister of Israel, who said: “You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies.”

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Animal vocal communication. I doubt I’d be very good at Mastermind, though. The answer I’d give to most questions would be, “It depends…” People think that simple answers exist to questions such as “Do animals have a language?” or “What does this dog bark mean?” In fact, things are rarely that simple.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

About 30,000 years ago, before humans had exploded onto the scene. A bit of peace and quiet would be nice.

What TV show could you not live without?

I haven’t had a TV for decades. But I’d be very sad if they’d never made Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Who would paint your portrait?

Peter Scott, who designed the WWF panda logo.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Nearly every line in the 1970s TV series Kung Fu was golden: “As no two elements of nature are in conflict, so when we perceive the ways of nature we remove conflict within ourselves.”

What’s currently bugging you?

My friend, Professor Angela Dassow, said to me, “It bugs me that wombats can poop in cubes, but other animals can’t.” Now it bugs the hell out of me too.

What single thing would make your life better?

A dog. My companion of 15 years, Darwin, died last year, and it has been rough.

When were you happiest?

Whenever I have been out in the wild, in a hammock, being woken by gibbon song.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

My childhood ambitions were to be a zoologist and a rocket scientist. I actually was a rocket scientist before becoming a zoologist, so I’ve covered all the bases.

Are we all doomed?

I look around desperately for a sign of hope, but no one seems to be doing anything about reversing our destruction of the living world that supports us.

“Why Animals Talk” by Arik Kershenbaum is published by Viking

[See also: Jen Gunter Q&A: “I wanted to be a detective and drive around in a convertible”]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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