This is not your grandmother’s ‘A is for Aardvark’ list of the animals of the world.
Simon Barnes A history of the world in 100 animals is a look at 100 animal species and taxa that have helped shape human prehistory and history. Furthermore, the evolutionary paths taken by many of these animals have been shaped at least in part by humans.
The book weaves together zoology, biology, evolution and culture and is delightful. Not all profile animals are cute and cuddly. For example, cockroaches have their own chapter, as do rat fleas, houseflies, and mosquitoes. The information is anecdotal and (I hope) mostly fact-based, though there’s no way to know for sure because, like many books written for general readers, the book doesn’t have a Notes section. That said, including one would have been a great idea, because at least once Barnes’ need to describe a sweeping story might have thrown him off balance. In the book itself and on the book jacket, he claims: “The Pigeons made possible the greatest single discovery in the history of human thought.” However, all his text gives as a backup for this statement is the revelation that pigeons seem to have been one of the first domesticated animals. Which just reliably suggests that these and other domesticated animals probably supported humans’ first attempts at agriculture. Agriculture, certainly, was a huge discovery for humans. But did pigeons make agriculture possible? And is agriculture “the greatest single discovery in the history of human thought?” Certainly the invention of the wheel and the domestication of fire are also candidates for this prize.
In Barnes’ defense, stretching a point about pigeons isn’t the only—or even the worst—example I’ve come across recently of writers getting rid of facts to make a sensational point. For example, a different author writing about evolution referred to young male birds as “transvestites.” It’s a wild and wonderful thought. But wait. They reach sexual maturity much later than the females, and indeed during this extended youth they sometimes sport female coloration. Even so, do they derive intense sexual pleasure from cross dressing? This is required by the definition of transvestism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry. I think science journalism should stick to the facts, ma’am, unless the author labels his opinion as unverified.
At least A history of the world in 100 animals it’s well indexed and beautifully illustrated and a lot of fun to read. I will keep it on my bookshelf and, as I do, lament the fact that my children are grown and gone and we can’t read a chapter of it every night together. Oh, the family discussions it could have sparked!
Meanwhile, New York City apartment dwellers battling cockroach infestations take note from Barnes’ book that they might want to stop fighting the little villains. “In China, twice-fried cockroach is considered a good medicinal food. there are even cockroach farms to supply the market.” In Barnes’ chapter on rats, he notes that humans share 90% of our DNA with them, which is why rats are so useful as laboratory animals. His chapter on monkeys points out that, while monkeys in general are known for their bad behavior, the Hindu monkey god is “a paragon of virtue”.
Many such wonderful revelations make up this strange and beautiful book. Please, Simon Barnes. Next time give us your notes.
A history of the world in 100 animals
Simon Barnes. Pegasus. $39.95 (480 pages) May 2022