Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

The Water-Babies by Charles KingsleyThe Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, Charles Kingsley (1863)

When I first read this as a child, I didn’t realize that it was one of the strangest books ever written. I do now. And the strangeness was heightened by the old edition I’ve re-read it in, because it came as a double volume that started with Kingsley’s The Heroes, or Greek Fairy Tales (1856).

No-one reading The Heroes would guess what awaited them in the second half of the book. The prose plods, the imagery is strictly conventional – “Then Aietes’ rage rushed up like a whirlwind, and his eyes flashed fire” – and Kingsley makes interesting stories dull. I quickly gave up when I tried to read them.

Maybe I was anticipating The Water-Babies too much. It starts almost conventionally, but it has an unconventional hero: “a little chimney-sweep” called Tom. He’s unwashed, unlettered, untaught, and unfairly treated by his master in “a great town in the north country”. But he accepts the hardships of his life, finds fun where he can, and thinks of “the fine times coming, when he would be a man, and a master sweep, and sit in the public-house with a quart of beer and a long pipe, and play cards for silver money, and wear velveteens and ankle-jacks, and keep a white bull-dog with one grey ear, and carry her puppies in his pocket, just like a man.”

That first long paragraph of The Water-Babies is already richer and more vivid than the whole of The Heroes. And the book hasn’t got strange yet. It starts to do so when Tom is taken into the country to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, the grand home of the squire Sir John Harthover:

[It] had been built at ninety different times, and in nineteen different styles, and looked as if somebody had built a whole street of houses of every imaginable shape, and then stirred them together with a spoon.

For the attics were Anglo-Saxon.

The third door Norman.

The second Cinque-cento.

The first-floor Elizabethan.

The right wing Pure Doric.

The centre Early English, with a huge portico copied from the Parthenon.

The left wing pure Boeotian, which the country folk admired most of all, became it was just like the new barracks in the town, only three times as big.

The grand staircase was copied from the Catacombs at Rome.

The back staircase from the Tajmahal at Agra. […]

The cellars were copied from the caves of Elephanta.

The offices from the Pavilion at Brighton.

And the rest from nothing in heaven, or earth, or under the earth. (The Water-Babies, ch. 1)

That’s an early taste of the eccentric lists and juggling of ideas to come. Tom begins to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, but accidentally comes down in the bedroom of the squire’s daughter as she lies asleep in bed. She’s the “most beautiful little girl Tom had ever seen”. And she’s completely clean. Then Tom notices someone else in the room: “standing close to him, a little ugly, black, ragged figure, with bleared eyes and grinning white teeth.”

He turns on it angrily, then realizes it’s his own reflection in a “great mirror, the like of which [he] had never seen before.” For the first time in his life, he understands that he is dirty. The knowledge startles and shames him, so he tries to flee up the chimney. But he upsets the fire-irons and wakes the little girl. She screams, thinking he’s a thief; and Tom’s adventures begin. He leaves the little girl’s bedroom by the window, climbing down the magnolia tree outside, and runs off.

Soon the whole house and its staff are chasing him, but he tricks them off his trail, “as cunning as an old Exmoor stag”, and makes off through a wood, then onto the hills of a moor. After the grand catalogue of architectural styles, Kingsley’s descriptions become detailed and naturalistic: “[Tom] saw great spiders there, with crowns and crosses marked on their backs, who sat in the middle of their webs, and when they saw Tom coming, shook them so fast that they became invisible.” But when he disturbs a grouse washing itself in sand, it runs off and tells its wife about the end of the world. Like Tom, the reader has entered a new world where animals think and talk.

But the truly big transformation is still to come. The sun is very hot as Tom climbs the limestone hills and starts down the other side. He grows thirsty and begins to suffer from sun-stroke. When he seeks help at a dame-school, he’s given some milk and a place to rest, but his head is ringing and he wants to be clean. He walks to a stream in a nearby meadow and bathes in it. Then he falls asleep in it:

Ah, now comes the most wonderful part of this wonderful story. Tom, when he woke, for of course he woke — children always wake after they have slept exactly as long as is good for them — found himself swimming about in the stream, being about four inches, or — that I may be accurate — 3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills (I hope you understand all the big words) just like those of a sucking eft, which he mistook for a lace frill, till he pulled at them, found he hurt himself, and made up his mind that they were part of himself, and best left alone. (ch. II)

He’s now a Water-Baby and can begin his amphibious adventures. As the title suggests, water is central to this book: it’s a protean, ever-changing medium, with the power to transform, transport and cleanse. And it has a lot in common with language, which is also protean and transformative.

So Kingsley plays with language as he describes water and its inhabitants. I thought he was making fun of scientific terminology – “3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills” is just the start – but apparently he was a friend of Charles Darwin and accepted Evolution. A lot of that goes on in this book: physical, intellectual and moral. Tom evolves from boy to Water-Baby, but he has a lot of bad habits to unlearn as he travels down the stream and the river into which evolves. He talks with all kind of animals:

And as the creature sat in the warm bright sun, a wonderful change came over it. It grew strong and firm; the most lovely colours began to show on its body, blue and yellow and black, spots and bars and rings; out of its back rose four great wings of bright brown gauze; and its eyes grew so large that they filled all its head, and shone like ten thousand diamonds.

“Oh, you beautiful creature!” said Tom; and he put out his hand to catch it.

But the thing whirred up into the air, and hung poised on its wings a moment, and then settled down again by Tom quite fearless.

“No!” it said, “you cannot catch me. I am a dragon-fly now, the king of all the flies; and I shall dance in the sunshine, and hawk over the river, and catch gnats, and have a beautiful wife like myself. I know what I shall do. Hurrah!” And he flew away into the air, and began catching gnats. (ch. III)

Tom also meets wicked otters and snobbish salmon. Then he reaches the sea, realm of the ever-changing god Proteus, and things get even stranger. He talks with hermit-crabs and lobsters as he searches for other Water-Babies. Words and ideas run and swirl through the story like currents, and so do emotions. Tom experiences both joy and sadness:

And then there came by a beautiful creature, like a ribbon of pure silver with a sharp head and very long teeth; but it seemed very sick and sad. Sometimes it rolled helpless on its side; and then it dashed away glittering like white fire; and then it lay sick again and motionless.

“Where do you come from?” asked Tom. “And why are you so sick and sad?”

“I come from the warm Carolinas, and the sandbanks fringed with pines; where the great owl-rays leap and flap, like giant bats, upon the tide. But I wandered north and north, upon the treacherous warm gulf-stream, till I met with the cold icebergs, afloat in the mid ocean. So I got tangled among the icebergs, and chilled with their frozen breath. But the water-babies helped me from among them, and set me free again. And now I am mending every day; but I am very sick and sad; and perhaps I shall never get home again to play with the owl-rays any more.” (ch. IV)

That’s a description of an oar-fish, I think. When Tom finds the Water-Babies of whom it spoke, he completes his moral education under the guidance of two mother-fairies, the ugly Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and the beautiful Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. But the ugly can become beautiful: Kingsley was a Christian and this is a moralistic story too. The dirt that Tom has to lose is spiritual, not just moral and physical: he saw a crucifix in the little girl’s bedroom and didn’t know what it was.

But there’s too much going on in The Water-Babies for any simple reading of Kingsley’s aims. Or perhaps I’m saying that because I’m not a Christian. Either way, the book certainly isn’t conventional in its Christianity. Like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Kingsley’s world is big enough for non-believers. But it isn’t as coherent as Narnia or Middle-earth, or as easy to enter as Wonderland. That’s part of why The Water-Babies isn’t as famous or as widely read today. Lewis Carroll played with both logic and language; Kingsley plays with both life and language.

That’s what I like about this book. You’ll find vivid little naturalistic touches like spiders shaking in their webs and words like “Necrobioneopalaeonthydrochthonanthropopithekology”. If Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll had collaborated on a book, it might have ended up something rather like The Water-Babies. And James Joyce would have been good as a collaborator too. I don’t know if he was influenced by The Water-Babies, but he could have been. He too was obsessed with language and water. Both of them are at the heart of this Fairy Tale for a Land Baby.

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Drawn from Paradise by Richard Attenborough and Errol FullerDrawn from Paradise: The discovery, art and natural history of the birds of paradise, David Attenborough and Errol Fuller (Collins 2012)

A book about feats for the eyes that also is a feast for the eyes. The second set of eyes are human; the first are avine – specifically, the eyes of female birds of paradise. The gorgeous plumage of the males has been created by female preference over many generations. The more attractive a male’s feathers and the more energetically and skilfully he displays, the more likely he has been to mate and leave offspring. As the most attractive males in each generation are selected, so the features that make them attractive grow ever more exaggerated, even – or especially – if they become a handicap in escaping predators and so on.

Darwin called this “sexual selection” and it’s most famous in the peacock. Peahens are drab and inconspicuous by comparison, but they are the driving force for the spectacular feathers of the male. If peacocks didn’t exist, would any artist have been able to create them? I don’t think so. The same goes for the birds of paradise: it’s not just their beauty and extravagance that are astonishing. So is their variety. Some have golden feathers, some have scarlet, some have celestial blue. Some have plumes, some ruffs, some sprays, some wires and some “flank feathers” that rise “to form a perfect ellipse”, framing the male’s head during courtship (ch. 6, “The Sicklebills”, pg. 142).

That’s the brown sicklebill, Epimachus mayeri. The superb bird of paradise, Lophorina superba, does something even stranger, raising a cape of feathers on its back to create a kind of cone around its head, in the shadow of which two white head-feathers glimmer like eyes. But it wasn’t until artists saw these birds in the wild that they knew precisely how to represent them. Before that, they’d used guesswork and inevitably got many things wrong. For a long time, as Attenborough describes, artists were working from dead specimens, sometimes traded several times before they reached Europe and sometimes lacking their wings and feet. This gave rise to the legend that the birds floated rather than flew, living permanently in the sky till they died and fell to earth. Hence the name “birds of paradise”:

In 1522 the first of many, many bird of paradise plumes arrived in Europe. Within just months they attracted the attention of a celebrated artist, Hans Baldung Grien. His picture may have been a comparatively flimsy affair, but it began a tradition among artists that has continued to this day. The list of artists who have felt compelled to paint or draw birds of paradise is studded with some illustrious names: Brueghel, Rubens, Rembrandt, Millais. Then there are men who actually specialised in painting birds: [Jacques] Barraband, [Josef] Wolf, [William] Hart, [John] Gould, [John Gerrard] Keulemans. And, of course, there are modern painters. Walter Weber produced a series of iconic images for The National Geographic magazine during the early 1950s. William T. Cooper illustrated two major monographs on birds of paradise, and Raymond Ching is known throughout the world for his poetic and highly charged paintings. (Introduction, pg. 32)

The work of these artists illustrates the book. There are no photographs, just paintings, drawings and engravings from the six centuries during which Europeans have been fascinated and dazzled by the Paradisaeidea. Errol Fuller, the co-author of the book, is one of the artists. He’s a skilful painter, but he has to be: birds of paradise are challenging subjects, the visual equivalent of a complicated piece for violin or piano. An artist has to have full command of colour and line. The artists here do: you can almost smell the jungle in some modern paintings.

Jacques Barraband, Petit oiseau de paradis

Jacques Barraband, Petit oiseau de paradis

But that realism is the influence of photography and of personal observation. The Frenchman Jacques Barraband (1761-1809) never got to Papua New Guinea or northern Australia, so he never saw the living birds, but he remains one of the great paradiseans, able to bring dead specimens to life on canvas. The biographical section at the end of the book, describing “People Associated with the Discovery and Visual Representation of Birds of Paradise”, says this:

Despite the incredible beauty of his images, and the great influence they have had, comparatively little is known of Jacques Barraband and it has not proved possible to find a portrait of him. He was the son of a weaver, and it seems he worked originally as a tapestry designer at Gobelin’s, and later turned his hand to decorating porcelain at the famous factory in Sèvres. (pg. 236)

So we know he existed, but we don’t have an image of him. The opposite applies to some birds of paradise: we have images, but don’t know whether they ever existed. Some paintings and drawings are mysterious. Are they are invented or based on real specimens that are now lost? Birds of paradise often hybridize, adding more phantasmogoric variety to the family, and a few species may have gone extinct or be awaiting re-discovery.

Those are tantalizing prospects, but the biological interest of this book isn’t confined to birds. The biographical section at the back contrasts with what’s gone before. Birds of paradise come in many colours and shapes, but the “People Associated with” their “Discovery and Visual Representation” are overwhelmingly white males of northern European ancestry. They’re the ones who have created the beautiful art and run the enormous risks. New Guinea has always been a dangerous place, with its fast rivers, mountainous terrain, violent tribes and tropical diseases. That’s why it attracted one of the twentieth century’s greatest adrenalin-junkies:

Adventurer, bar-fly, beachcomber, boxer, brawler, drifter, entertainer, freedom fighter, lover, platypus and bird fancier, prospector, self-confessed thief, sailor, writer, Hollywood icon, Errol Flynn [1909-59] packed every conceivable human activity into his whirlwind tour through life. He starred in almost 60 films, wrote two novels and an autobiography, before dying at the comparatively early age of 50 from the effects of a totally worn-out body. (pg. 240)

I was surprised to find Errol Flynn here, but his presence and the quote about collecting birds of paradise from his memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1960) make the book even stranger and even more satisfying to read. White men like Flynn are as spectacular for their achievements as male birds of paradise are for their plumage. Perhaps sexual selection explains both sets of phenomena. Certainly some kind of evolution does, because genetics are responsible for the feats of both. There is much more to this book than birds, but phantasmagoric feathers are why it’s such a feast for the eyes.

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Enchanting Alpine Flowers, Alfred Pohler, trans. Jacqueline Schweighofer

If the author’s name had been removed you might guess from the title alone that this is a translation. If so, the “PROTECTED!” that punctuates the text would tell you the original language. And yes, Enchanting Alpine Flowers was originally called Zauberhafte Alpenblumen, or “Bewitching Alp-Blooms”. But being shouted at in a book about flowers that are often very delicate isn’t so odd. The flowers themselves are generally photographed against mountain and snow, rather like a young soprano singing sweetly at the front of a stage while a group of basses rumbles away at the back. That kind of photography is sometimes necessary to properly justify the inclusion of a flower, because many of them aren’t unique to the Alps or to mountainous regions. Some of the most beautiful are, though, like Cortusa matthioli, or Alpine bells, a member of the primrose family whose five red petals droop like bells or fairy caps at the top of long, slender stalks.

Aconitum lamarckii

Aconitum lamarckii, Lamarck’s Wolfsbane

It’s found only in the Alps, while the strange yellow Aconitum lamarckii, or Lamarck’s Wolfsbane, extends to the Appenines, Pyrenees and Jura, and isn’t just “PROTECTED!” but “POISONOUS!” too. Neither of those shows any obvious adaptations to cold and altitude, but Leontopodium alpinum, the famous Edelweiss (its scientific name means “Alpine lion’s-little-foot” and its common name “precious-white”), is really a woolly daisy, while the five-petalled, yellow-eyed white flowers of Androsace helvetica, or the Swiss rock-jasmine, are on very short stalks and curve back against the densely packed leaves, as though the plant is hugging itself against the cold.

That is exactly what it’s doing: evolution becomes most obvious under extreme conditions and mountain flowers are often interesting not just for their beauty but for their biology too. The text that fills half of each double-page is short but full of scientific detail and precision, affording another contrast to the richness and delicacy of the photographs standing opposite. Enchanting Alpine Flowers is indeed enchanting.

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Butterflies and Moths in Britain and Europeby David CarterButterflies and Moths in Britain and Europe, David Carter, designed by Roger Phillips (Pan 1982)

I like all the lepidoptera, but the butterflies in this book seem drab and uninspiring set against the moths, which are astonishing creatures visually, behaviourally and evolutionarily. Butterflies receive much more attention and they aren’t often presented beside their smaller relatives as they are here. In the tropics, they would meet the challenge better. In northern Europe, they’re second-best. Northern moths come in a huge variety of gorgeous patterns and shapes, but their beauty and interest suffer more when they’re dead and pinned in an entomological cabinet.

Comparing the dead specimens with the photographs from life, you can see that there’s an elegant self-sufficiency about a moth at rest. Many of them look like crosses between priests and dandies wearing richly embroidered cloaks, sometimes trimmed with fur, and either drawn close to the body or stretched wide in deltas and vees. Even their antennæ could be ritual hats and tiaras. But it’s hard to generalize about such a vast collection of genera and species and some moths look like clowns instead: the scarlet-and-black or yellow-and-black arctiids, whose colors warn predators off.

Their sounds warn predators off too. Bats don’t hunt by sight, so night-flying arctiids generate high-pitched sounds to advertise their inedibility. But just as some harmless moths have evolved to look like wasps, shedding scales on their first flight to leave suitably transparent patches on their wings, so some have evolved to sound like the arctids: there are sonic mimics as well as visual ones. Elsewhere evolution hasn’t added but subtracted: some female moths don’t have wings at all. The females of some species sit and wait for mates and look more like spiders than insects. One of my favourite moths, on the other hand, has multiplied its wings: the pure white Pterophorus pentadactyla, or large white plume moth, looks much the same when pinned to a collector’s board as it does resting on a leaf, because it holds its quintuply-split, silkily-fringed wings “at right angles to the body and folds its legs backwards so that it looks like a letter T.”

Other moths carry letters on their wings rather than in their postures: the wings of the silver y, or Autographa gamma, say something in both English and Greek, as its common and scientific names denote, but I can’t work out which “Hebrew character” the moth of that name is supposed to carry. Its scientific name, Orthosia gothica, isn’t any help. On the other hand, the Mother Shipton, or Callistege mi, really does seem to have two long-nosed, long-jawed crones looking at each other on left and right wings: Mother Shipton was a “famous Yorkshire witch”.

This species reminds me of the contrast between the beauty of moths and their very ugly and alien larvæ and pupæ, some of which can also generate sounds to warn off predators. Aesthetically and intellectually moths are worth investigating, and this book is an excellent place to start. It’s not only well-designed, well-written, and with some very beautiful photographs, it has a separate food-plant index too, running from Abies, or “fir”, to Vitis, or “vine”.

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Life: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour, Martha Holmes and Michael Gunton (BBC Books 2009)

Probably the best BBC book I’ve seen: the beautiful photographs and the enlightening text complement each other perfectly. It’s not advanced biology, with equations and game theory, and it doesn’t give scientific names. But it does include some recent discoveries, like the rehabilitation of the Komodo dragon. If that’s the word:

The tissue damage from the bite is not enough to kill. Until recently, it was thought that bacteria in the dragon’s saliva poisoned its prey. But it has been shown now that the dragon, like some snakes, has venom, making it the world’s largest venomous animal. (ch. 5, “Frogs, Serpents and Dragons”, pg. 134)

The Komodo dragon has become more frightening. And also more interesting. But the book isn’t only about big and frightening: it’s also about strange and beautiful, like:

A tall Gersemia soft coral bending over to sweep tiny animals from the sediment. It does this when there isn’t enough food in the water for its polyps to trap. Once it has consumed everyting in a circle around itself, it will detach from whatever it is holding onto and crawl to a new spot. (ch. 1, “Extraordinary Sea Creatures”, pg. 39)

Germesia soft coral
That’s in very cold water under “the ice in McMurdo Sound, in Antarctica’s Ross Sea”, as part of an “ancient, isolated and utterly unique community” of marine life: there are also sponges, starfish, proboscis worms and sea-urchins. The Gersemia looks both beautiful and graceful, bowing to the sediment like a jewelled and mobile tree, but those are human terms for an organism that probably isn’t even conscious. And all of those organisms that are conscious, like the mammals in the final three chapters, aren’t aware of how they look to us. Natural beauty – and its absence – aren’t designed for us, but the aesthetics of animals is an interesting topic.

Television wants powerful images and this book reproduces them from the series, like the “lioness charging across a river in the Okavango” on page 228. But I think the static image must be more powerful than the mobile one: the photograph freezes the chaos of splashing water and the pale gold perfection of the lioness herself. She wears a look of immense concentration and purpose and I’ve rarely seen a better example of the power and beauty of the big cats. On page 219, there’s an image of one of the big cats’ greatest enemies. It’s also powerful, but in a different way: “a yawning spotted hyena revealing a perfect set of teeth, specialized for cutting, tearing and grinding.” Hyenas are interesting but not attractive. Big cats are both, from the charging lioness to the cheetahs on pages 231-5 and the alert lynx on page 237.

So why is the cat-family, big and small, generally much more attractive than the dog-family? And why are bats often so grotesque? The bulldog bat sweeping up a fish on pages 242-3 has a flat snarling face, ginger fur, taut, veined wings, hook-like hind claws and what looks like a small dangling penis. Birds are often very attractive. Why not bats? Their hairiness and leathery wings are part of it, as are their faces, which are adapted for sonar and eating, not for appealing to human beings.

And then we come to the primates in the final chapter. Now we’re getting closer to home. The faces of each species has a distinct effect on humans, from the endearing spectral tarsier to the choleric red uakari and the melancholy macaque. And chimpanzees look more intelligent than gorillas. Their faces haven’t evolved for our eyes, but they trigger mechanisms in our minds all the same.

So do the insects, birds and fish earlier in the book. And the plants in the single chapter devoted to them, like the bamboo and the dragon’s-blood tree. Colour and line: beautiful and ugly, attractive and repulsive. But all of this bio-aesthetics is interesting and all of it’s governed by natural and sexual selection. And behind it all is Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics Mistress of the World, from the circle swept by a soft coral on the floor of an icy ocean to the pattern of veins in a bat’s wing and the stripes in a tiger’s pelt.

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Front cover of Steve Backshall's Most Poisonous CreaturesSteve Backshall’s Most Poisonous Creatures, Steve Backshall (New Holland 2013)

As the BBC naturalist Steve Backshall says in his introduction: “Human beings have an unhealthy obsession with any animal that can maim or mutilate, and those that deliver venom are obviously high on our fascination list.” But is it unhealthy? It’s wise to pay attention to dangerous things and it’s possible that some animals in this book have become part of our DNA. Human beings were once monkeys and monkeys have an instinctive fear of snakes (though it needs to be primed). If there’s an instinctive fear of snakes, why not of spiders and scorpions too?

There are lots of snakes in this book, but not so many spiders and few scorpions. The latter two are a more specialized taste and a popular book doesn’t want too many of them. Snakes often inspire respect, spiders and scorpions often inspire repulsion. As do centipedes and cane-toads. Some venomous animals look villainous, some poisonous ones look painful. Some don’t. Phyllobates terribilis is “believed to have enough poison to kill ten men”. But it’s a harmless-looking golden frog shown here perched on a scarlet flower (pg. 10). If you saw one, you’d feel like picking it up. Which would be a very bad idea.

That also applies to the two species of blue-ringed octopus, Hapalochlaena lunulata and H. maculosa, found around the Australian coast. Again, it’s a very bad idea to pick one up: “one tiny, golf-ball-sized octopus can have enough venom to kill 26 people” (pg. 115). That combination of delicacy and deadliness gives a special power to the poison-dart frogs and the blue-ringed octopus. Australia’s deadliest snake is more conventionally disturbing:

The most powerful venom, drop for drop, is produced by the inland Taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidatus): a single drop from this beautiful snake is enough to kill 250,000 mice and by extrapolation, 100 people! However, no-one has ever been killed by one. This is mainly because they are shy snakes that tend to avoid human contact. (pg. 120)

Australia is famous for strange and dangerous wildlife, but its cars are much deadlier than its snakes or octopuses. Less dangerous, but even stranger is the duckbilled platypus, Ornithorhyncus anatinus. Very few mammals lay eggs and very few use venom. The platypus does both, though not at the same time: the females lay eggs and the males use venom, injecting it with “moveable spurs on the rear legs” (pg. 118). One Vietnam veteran who experienced a platypus sting said it was more painful than a bullet-wound.

But there’s even more toxicological strangeness in that part of the world: Papua New Guinea has at least one poisonous bird, Pitohui dichrous, the hooded pitohui. It uses the batracho-toxins first discovered in, and named for, the poison-dart frogs of South America, just as the blue-ringed octopus uses the tetrodotoxin first discovered in, and named for, the pufferfish, Tetraodontidae spp. All these groups get their deadly chemicals from their diet: insects, plankton and so on.

So why don’t they die from their diet? That’s one of the interesting questions about the animals in this book: their venoms and poisons have to be dangerous to others and harmless to themselves. It’s a question of chemistry, one way or another. Either the animal has a way of neutralizing the effects of its own poisons or it stores them away from the rest of its body, creating some kind of barrier to their spread. Richard Dawkins has described evolution as a blind watchmaker, but the watchmaker is really a chemist. And an electro-chemist. Nerve-signals, and the toxins that interfere with them, don’t run on copper wires. They flash through flesh instead, carrying the pain of a bite or sting. Or the patterns of a dangerous animal’s skin or scales: it pays to advertise when you’re poisonous. And perhaps some feathers are advertising too: Backshall suggests the birds of paradise on New Guinea may look spectacular as a warning for predators, not simply as a signal for mates.

Poisonous birds are a recent discovery and there may be more surprises in store: biology is a big field, though Backshall ends the book by noting that it’s getting smaller. More people mean less space for fewer animals and pollution is the deadliest poison of all. Another big poison is television: it dulls more brains and stifles more minds than anything Mother Nature ever devised. But this book wouldn’t exist without TV and Homo sapiens is part of nature, just like shrews, salamanders and slow lorises. We’ve just added more complexity to the game of evolution: we haven’t escaped it. The rules that apply to animals also apply to us and toxicology is one of the most interesting areas of biology. This is a good introduction full of photos, folklore and facts about everything from snakes, octopuses and platypuses to jellyfish, water-boatmen and the Komodo dragon.

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