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'Riveting yet superficial': Lord Krebs reviews 'The Modern Bestiary: A Curated Collection of Wondrous Creatures'

'Riveting yet superficial': Lord Krebs reviews 'The Modern Bestiary: A Curated Collection of Wondrous Creatures'

The Madagascan Aye Aye | Illustration by Jennifer N. R. Smith

3 min read

From microscopic eyebrow mites to butterflies that feast on crocodile tears, Joanna Bagniewska has produced a simultaneously riveting and somewhat hackneyed compendium of beasts

Originally, bestiaries were written for moralising and/or religious purposes. For instance, medieval Christian bestiaries illustrated the wonders of God’s creation, as well as containing moral lessons. Their connection with biological reality was loose, and fictional animals – such as unicorns, griffins, mermaids and phoenixes – appeared alongside real animals. Right up to the early 19th century, the design of living creatures was seen as evidence for a creator, as expounded by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology: Or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature.

Ever since Charles Darwin, scientists have agreed that the “design” of living creatures results from natural selection and not from a creator. Paley drew the comparison between the design of a watch, with its intricate workings aimed to achieve accurate time keeping, and the design of living things, with equivalently intricate workings – all apparently designed for a purpose. Richard Dawkins titled his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker to underscore the point that the appearance of intelligent design in nature is not evidence of a “watchmaker”: it is the product of the blind, cumulative, incremental process of natural selection with no ultimate purpose.

Joanna Bagniewska’s The Modern Bestiary consists of 100 two-page chapters, each one describing the remarkable and often peculiar behaviour, anatomy or life history of a particular species. As the author acknowledges, selecting 100 out of the roughly 1.4m known species of animals inevitably means that many readers will search in vain for their favourite.

The reader is often left with more questions than answers

The hundred species are grouped under “earth”, “water” and “air”, for terrestrial, aquatic and airborne species respectively. Most are vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) or arthropods (insects, spiders, crustaceans). As the author emphasises in her introduction, all the facts reported in her bestiary, however odd, are – in contrast with medieval bestiaries – backed up by hard scientific evidence.

How well does The Modern Bestiary fulfil its aim of inspiring excitement and interest in the products of evolution? I think it is a bit of a curate’s egg. On the one hand, many of the biological facts are riveting and engaging: for instance, the biology of the microscopic mites that you and I have living in our eyebrows, or the butterflies that drink crocodile tears. On the other hand, the reader is often left with more questions than answers: the book is very superficial in explaining why and how behaviours and structures evolved. I also found the corny, faux-tabloid style of writing annoying. “Ah, ants, the cool kids of the invertebrate world”, or “Knock knock! Who’s there? It is aye!” as an introduction to the chapter on the Madagascan lemur called the Aye Aye with its extraordinarily long middle finger used for extracting grubs from rotten wood.

You may enjoy thumbing through the book to glean interesting anecdotes for dinner party conversations, but don’t expect to gain much insight into how evolution by natural selection works

Lord Krebs is a crossbench peer and emeritus professor of zoology at Oxford University

The Modern Bestiary: A Curated Collection of Wondrous Creatures
By: Joanna Bagniewska & Jennifer N R Smith
Publisher: Wildfire

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