Tag Archives: Book review

The Inner Life of Animals – Book Review

Peter Wohlleben’s The Inner Life of Animals is a book that delves into the examination of animal behavior and emotions. The author’s foray into the topic is simple – that if animals and humans are related on an evolutionary tree – then animals must also experience sadness, anger, grief, infidelity, happiness and greed. And just like humans, Peter believes that animals are individuals and therefore uniquely different.

The tone of the book is set in the introduction. Peter’s aim is to write in a manner that is simple to understand, free from scientific jargon so that the book is accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

To substantiate his claims, Peter refers to scientific research such as those emerging from Penn State University on pain receptors in fish and research from the University of Seville into fish brain to name a few. Ultimately though, he draws much heavily from his own observations of animal behavior from his years of working as a forester in Hümmel, Germany where he lives on a farm surrounded by dogs, goats and horses. 

He talks about wild boar that have learnt to outsmart annual human hunters, to foxes playing dead to catch crows to Eurasian jays stealing food from other birds and squirrels eating baby birds in winter. His love for all living things knows no bounds as he even manages to make the life of a forest tick and the humble slime mould more palatable.

The Inner Life of Animals by Peter Wohlleben (2017)

In many ways, the author manages to achieve his goal of writing a book for the masses. The chapters are short (some are only two pages long) and the book is very easy to read. Peter’s continued use of open ended questions invites the reader to continue shifting through the pages. He leaves enough breadcrumbs to make people stop and think back to their own interaction with animals (both domestic and wild) without forcing his ideas. In trying to explain the uniqueness of each animal, Peter also manages to inject each of his subjects with a healthy dose of personality.

Yet herein lies the problem with this book. Although some chapters are short, his examinations into each topic often comes across as vague. This has led to his book being criticised by some readers for anthropomorphising animals. I think that a deeper and more rigorous examination of the science would have helped alleviate some of this. In fact, I think that the different types of science should have been the basis of the book with his own observations being used to validate the research. Regardless, I think the book is a fine addition to any bookshelf and is a great compendium piece to his other book, the Hidden Life of Trees.

Advertisements

The Eternal Frontier – A short book review

Have you ever wondered what North America looked like sixty-five million years ago? Or how life on the continent recovered after the cataclysmic Chicxulub struck the landmass? These are the questions Tim Flannery – a prominent, Australian ecologist and environmentalist – seeks to answer in his book The Eternal Frontier (first published in 2001).

Flannery’s narrative begins when the asteroid Chicxulub collides with the Earth. Its destructive power annihilates the dinosaurs and virtually wipes the North American continental slate clean.  From here, he beings to introduce a range of cast and characters. First came the plants, the pioneers that colonised the continent. Then, over time came the giant sloths, direwolves, one tonne lions, mammoths, bisons and mastodons. While the North American continent takes centre-stage, Eurasia, South America, Europe and even Australia played a supporting role in the evolution of its biodiversity. We learn for example, that many species of birds that are currently found in North America are of South American origin, while many of its mammals originated in Eurasia.

After charting the ebb and flow of life on the North American continent, Flannery turns his attention to the arrival of the first nations people into North America. Their arrival (some fourteen thousand years ago), is the start of the ‘blitzkrieg extinction’ period – one where the large megafauna began to disappear due to hunting and the changes in land-use and vegetation structure. A similar phenomena took place in Australia, where the megafauna disappearance coincides with the arrival of the Aboriginal people. The North American ecological balance finally tips with the arrival of French, Spanish and European settlers. Today, mass consumerism has become “an economic machine that is eating the life of the continent” (Benjamin Franklin in The Eternal Frontier, pg. 351).

The Eternal Frontier Book Cover
The Eternal Frontier by Tim Flannery

With his deeply imaginative writing coupled with forensic scientific examination, Flannery weaves a compelling and dramatic story. He punctuates the reader’s journey into this fascinating and deadly landscape with open ended questions, analyses competing theories and uses excerpts from journals and letters. He also provides a short summary of key ideas and developments at the end of each chapter help to keep readers on track. By the end of the book, readers will come to look at North America in a new light.

While Flannery takes his readers on a grand adventure, I think he is over ambitious in seeking to cover the ecological and evolutionary history of a continent that spans over sixty-five million years. I think that Flannery should have kept the focus on a specific time frame or chosen a particular event such as a conclusion to the story. This would have paved the way for a second volume, giving him more scope for a detailed examination. The continued introduction of new species of plants and animals also makes it confusing at times for the reader to keep up with the narrative and here, I think a collection of images or artist impressions would have been useful.

While the book is interesting, informative and imaginative, I think that some North American readers will not enjoy it as much, particularly, when Flannery forays into the impacts of humans on ecology and biodiversity. I think that his broad brush-strokes, perhaps justifiably, end up painting many of the human colonists of North America in a bad light.

Overall though, Flannery’s The Eternal Frontier is a worthy addition for anyone interested in the evolutionary history of the North American continent – and, indeed, the planet.

How did we get into this mess? A short book review

George Monbiot’s collection How Did We Get Into This Mess? covers a wide range of topics, including re-wilding, land-ownership, abortion, population control and even whale poo. Though these subjects are diverse, the actors that feature in them remain constant. They are the institutions such as governments and corporations whose systems continue to degrade our society. According to Monbiot, we live in the ‘Age of Loneliness’: an age in which connections to each other and to nature are being severed.

George Monbiot’s book – How did we get into this mess? Published in 2016

Monbiot’s frustrations are evident in each chapter and these frustrations are keenly felt by his readers. Throughout the book he challenges certain popular beliefs such as the notion that population growth is linked to environmental degradation. Eminent personalities such as Sir David Attenborough, Barack Obama, Charles Darwin and even the author himself cannot escape scrutiny. Indeed, Monbiot invites his readers to criticise his own actions when he discusses collecting, butchering and eating roadkill in front of a group of children, or his contentious support for nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Monbiot’s book is simple to read and understand. His language and writing becomes more emotive in chapters where he talks about nature and wildlife. In these chapters, he also introduces words such as ‘landscape pornography’, ‘sheepwrecked’ and ‘kleptorenumeration’ to convey the level of environmental destruction he is experiencing around him. Overall though, some readers will find the book a little jarring because he jumps from one topic to another which prevents continuity and rhythm.

This book is not for everyone. Simply put, it is a collection of fifty short articles that have already been published as opinion pieces in The Guardian. By and large, the chapters focus on the UK which may not resonate with the wider audience. If you are new to Monbiot, then I would recommend that you start with some of his other work such as Feral. However, if you are already familiar with his writings then feel free to add this to your library, particularly if you live in the UK.

The Beak of the Finch – A short book review

In 1995, Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch (1994) won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. As one of the most beautifully written books I have read on the topic of evolutionary biology, it is clear to me why Weiner won this accolade.

The Beak of the Finch – book cover

Weiner’s book follows Peter and Rosemary Grant – biologists, as well as husband and wife who have dedicated their careers for understanding evolution. Every year for twenty years, The Grants have travelled to Daphne Major, an island in the Galapagos archipelago in order to study the different species of finches that live there. The archipelago and its flora and fauna are significant in the field of evolutionary biology. Indeed, they may be regarded as the birthplace of this field of science. In 1835, Charles Darwin himself visited the Galapagos while travelling on the HMS Beagle. His observations and interactions with the plants and animals are thought to be the catalyst for his groundbreaking masterpiece The Origin of Species.

Peter and Rosemary Grant collecting data at Daphne Major. Image credit K.T.Grant – New York Times 2014

Over twenty years, The Grants, measured and recorded the sizes of the finches beaks as well as eating, breeding and nesting habits. Through Weiner’s evocative writing, the readers feel as if they are on the island alongside The Grants, experiencing their joys and sorrows as they spend months living rough to collect the data. The hand drawn sketches throughout the book by their daughter, Thalia Grant adds a ‘field-journal’ element to the book. Her drawing skills were honed while being home-schooled on Daphne Major by her parents.

The island of Daphne Major in the Galapagos. Image credit: Parer and Parer-Cook – New York Times 2014

The author does not ignore the significance of Darwin. Throughout the book, Weiner draws on Darwin’s own field notes, letters and quotes which provide valuable insight into how he developed the theory of evolution. So much so that it feels like the reader is having a conversation with the man himself. Neither does Weiner gloss over some of the weaknesses of Darwin’s theory, such as his belief that evolution is a slow process which manifests only after many generations.

Indeed in The Beak of the Finch, the data gathered by The Grants over the past two decades demonstrates that evolution can be a dynamic and rapid process. For instance, The Grants noted a shift in the average size of the beaks in the finches born after a severe drought or an intense wet season. Within each chapter, Weiner draws on a number of other researchers who are working with fish, moths and flies who have found similar trends to The Grants.

The reference to other research projects provides a refreshing break from The Grants and their finches as the book becomes repetitive in the middle with multiple references to the various species of finches on Daphne Major. Further, some readers have criticised Weiner for his foray into religion and philosophy towards the end of the book arguing that this inclusion is either unnecessary or superficial. Personally, I did not find this distracting as I think Weiner’s intention is to invite his readers to examine the relationship between religion and evolution themselves.  

Despite the criticisms, The Beak of the Finch is a fantastic read. Weiner writing style achieves a great balance between adventure, emotion and it serves as a masterclass for those interested in science writing. It is a book that I would highly recommend to anyone, particularly students who are interested in understanding evolution or as a gentle introduction to Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species.

Gaia: A new look at life on Earth – A short book review

Lovelock’s Gaia: a new look at life on Earth (first edition – 1979) is a seminal piece for contemporary conservationists. The theory grew from his work in the 1970s to develop scientific experiments to find life on Mars. Specifically, what would life on Mars look like? To help answer this question, he turned his thoughts to the existence of life on Earth.

Earthrise: The first image of the Earth from space taken from Apollo 8 in December 1968. To some, this is the most influential, environmental photo ever taken. Image credit: NASA.

According to Lovelock, Gaia is a very complex, hyper-connected entity which has natural checks and balances to help maintain a state of equilibrium. And it is this perfect harmony that is the cauldron that sustains and nourishes life on Earth. For Lovelock our actions can have unintended and unpredictable consequences.

Gaia: a new look at life on Earth is written for a general audience and Lovelock has managed to skillfully blend scientific facts with daily observations. His book is logically structured as each chapter is dedicated to a specific aspect of the Earth’s marine, terrestrial and atmospheric environments. He also uses graphs – albeit sparingly – throughout the book to support his arguments. Indeed, he manages to take the readers on a rich and enlightening journey in his short book.

Sadly, Lovelock’s grand vision of Gaia is muddied in his book. Some sections of the book are repetitive. Despite his use of simple language, some readers might not enjoy Lovelock’s over-reliance on chemistry when explaining the functions of terrestrial, marine and atmospheric environments. His choice of words, such as ‘cybernetics’ and ‘circuits’ when referring to Gaia’s invisible connections might add to the reader’s confusion.

Perhaps, the greatest flaw is not in Lovelock’s writing skills or the structure of the book. It is in the theory itself. His Gaia operates in a perfect system where many forms of pollution such as ozone and greenhouse gases will be naturally dealt with. This view runs the risk of creating a false sense of security given the immense environmental and climate challenges we are facing.

Despite his best efforts though the first publication of Gaia was not well received by the scientific community. His peers considered the theory a heresy – grounded more in theology than in science. However, over the years, his theory has evolved (just like theories do) into something more palatable – a more holistic approach to understanding life on Earth.

Lovelock’s Gaia: a new look at life on Earth (first edition – 1979), is a polarising book. Some conservationists dislike it. Yet there are others who use Gaia as a banner to rally the masses. For me, the desire to read the book was more to get an understanding into the thinking behind Lovelock’s Gaia as well as an intrigue to see how (and if) the theory had evolved since it was first penned. At the very least, I am thankful that Lovelock planted the seeds of thinking about the world in a very different way.

The Hidden Life of Trees – A short book review

Ever wondered what stories your favourite tree was hiding? What secrets you could learn if you could just understand those whispers in the wind? Peter Wohlleben’s book; The hidden life of trees (Figure 1) brings the possibility of communicating with trees a little closer.

Cover of the Hidden Life of Trees
Figure 1: Cover of the Hidden Life of Trees

A forester-turned-conservationist, Wohlleben has spent the better part of two decades managing one of the oldest forests in Hűmmell, Germany. His daily wanderings through his forest has given him an opportunity to observe the social relationships trees have with one another. In his book, he sheds light on how trees talk to each other, how they share resources and defend themselves against pests and even care for the young and the elderly.

It turns out that trees use their root and fungal networks to create the ‘wood wide web’, an organic infrastructure that connects trees in a forest together. In Wohlleben’s book, the forests quickly become a self-regulating entity with Gaia-esk undercurrents.

Indeed, reading Wohlleben’s book makes you feel like he has spent his days exploring Tolkien’s Fangorn Forest (Figure 2). Where one day he wandered too far and too deep and found the Ents. If it were not for the light sprinkling of scientific citations about new research into how trees use sound, taste and smell to communicate, you too would be lost in this fantasy world.

Figure 2: Peter in his beloved forest. Image credit: Sally McGrane, New York Times (2016)
Figure 2: Peter in his beloved forest. Image credit: Sally McGrane, New York Times (2016)

Sadly, some audiences may find Wohlleben’s book a difficult read. There are some parts of the book that come across as being both poorly written and structured as if Wohlleben has failed to completely grasp the complexities of his forest. However, you would be more inclined to forgive him as the book was originally published in German and then later translated into English.

On the whole, Wohlleben’s book seeks to shift the paradigm when it comes to the protecting forests. Specifically, how the current approach to conservation would change if we could understand their ‘language’ and the conversations taking place within a forest. Until then, I suspect a walk in the park or through a forest will never be the same for those who read ‘the hidden life of trees’.