Sounds Wild and Broken by David George Haskell

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Every now and then a book comes along that makes you want to read and read, forgetting all other responsibilities in the enjoyment of the task. Such a book is David Haskell’s Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction.

Haskell takes us back to Pre-Cambrian times in an imaginative chapter that has the experts talking. His easy lyrical style fascinates as it teaches. His subject matter is staggering in its comprehensiveness. He reminds us that our planet is replete with sounds. He traces the origins of animal song and introduces his readers to the specific songs of plants. That’s right – plants. He illuminates the complete arc of animal history and celebrates the emergence of Paleolithic from the preceding era.

Haskell knows how to tell a story. “In the moment of our birth, we are dragged across four hundred million years of evolutionary time…. Our earliest and only experience of sound before birth was the hum and throb of an aquatic cocoon…High tones were attenuated by the enclosing walls of flesh and fluid, and so our first sonic experiences were low and often rhythmic as her body pulsed and moved” (9). Our environment, each sentence packed with absorbing detail, is then described. Nobody writes like this; nobody can write as vividly as Hassell when he is on to something.

Haskell has a brilliant section on the importance of, and the operation of, cilia. He provides a neatly argued exposition leading to a profound statement that “physical motion is thus alchemized by cilia into bodily sensation” (23). That little word ‘thus’ is the summation of a complex argument that focuses on cilia in the bodies of many life forms.

Another chapter leads into the argument that, “after the long silence of Earth’s first 3.5 billion years, insects gave the terrestrial world its first songs” (43). That stopped me in my tracks as I had thought that the beginning of the universe would have been a noisy place. So, why did communicative sound take so long to evolve? Haskell has a reasonably argued thesis that ticks all the boxes for me. (It is likely that the waiting ears of predators may have put a brake on evolution’s sonic creativity). There is a brilliant description of listening to Cretaceous forests – “a disconcerting mix of familiarity and oddness” (61), one in which the melodies that birds today stitch into the air have no place.

Parts I and II occupy 77 pages of the most compressed one is likely to discover. The human tendency to switch off when faced by this level of complexity is not a problem when Haskell is the penman. This section can only be described as brilliant. Another example is the knowledge that the information encoded within calls is a language that crosses species boundaries. “Species that are preyed upon are knit together in a communicative network rich with nuanced representation of danger and identity” (103).

Haskell has much more in his study of sounds, wild and broken. He takes us through a discussion on culture and sound, and he writes of sound artificially produced. The point has already been made that this book is a unique discussion, a talk by an expert who is also a gifted communicator.

It is a fascinating book.

Sounds Wild and Broken


by David George Haskell

Black Inc

ISBN: 978 17606 4258 7

$34.99; 448 pp


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