Book Review: A History Of The World In 100 Animals By Simon Barnes

This is not your grandmother’s “A is for Aardvark” catalog of the world’s animals.

Simon Barnes’ A History of the World in 100 Animals is a look at 100 animal species and taxa that have helped shaped human pre-history and history. What’s more, the evolutionary courses taken by many of these animals have been shaped at least in part by humans.

The book weaves zoology, biology, evolution, and culture, and it is delightful. Not all the animals profiled are cute and cuddly. For example, cockroaches have their own chapter, as do rat fleas, houseflies, and mosquitoes. The information is anecdotal and (I’m hoping) for the most part founded in fact, though there’s no way for me to know for sure because, like many books written for general readers, the book doesn’t have a Notes section. That being said, including one would have been an excellent idea, for at least once Barnes’ need to spin a sweeping tale may have knocked him off balance. In the book itself and on the book jacket, he claims, “Pigeons made possible the biggest single breakthrough in the history of human thought.” However, all that his text gives as backup for that statement is the revelation that pigeons seem to have been one of the earliest domesticated animals. Which is only to suggest reliably that they and other domesticated animals probably abetted humans’ earliest attempts at agriculture. Agriculture, surely, was an enormous breakthrough for humans. But did pigeons make agriculture possible? And is agriculture “the biggest single breakthrough in the history of human thought?” Surely the invention of the wheel and the taming of fire are also contenders for that prize.

In Barnes’ defense, his stretching of a point about pigeons is not the only — or even the worst — example I’ve encountered recently of authors stepping free of facts in order to make an impressive point. For example, a different author writing about evolution referred to young male bowerbirds as “transvestites.” It’s a wild and wonderful thought. But, wait. They do reach sexual maturity much later than females and, indeed, during this extended youth they sometimes sport female coloring. Even so, do they derive intense sexual pleasure from cross dressing? That’s what the psychiatary profession’s Diagnositic and Statistical Manual definition of transvestitism demands. I think that science journalism should stick to the facts, ma’am, unless the writer flags his or her opinion as unverified.

At least A History of the World in 100 Animals is well-indexed and beautifully illustrated, and it’s a lot of fun to read. I will keep it on my library shelf and, as I do, rue the fact that my children are grown and gone and we cannot read a chapter of this every night together. Oh, the family conversations it could have sparked!

Meanwhile, New York City apartment dwellers battling cockroach invasions, please take note from Barnes’ book that they may want to stop fighting the little buggers. “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 lab animals. His chapter on monkeys flags that, while monkeys in general are known for their misbehavior, the Hindu monkey god, is “a model of virtue.”

Many such gorgeous disclosures comprise this rambling and beautiful book. Please, Simon Barnes. Next time give us your Notes.