Monday, March 16, 2015

Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom by Simon Barnes

Did I ever tell you how I read and outlined each chapter of my biology textbook twice and then reviewed the outlines before 50-question multiple choice tests in high school? In acing those tests, I memorized much about zoological taxonomies of everything from bacteria to mammals. That was many years ago before DNA mapping revealed species relationships that zoologists never guessed. Many animals have been moved into different genera, families, and orders since that time, so this was for me a good time to read and learn from Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom by Simon Barnes.

Barnes is a writer of many interests, publishing books in fiction, sports, and natural history. I read and was entertained by How to Be a Bad Bird Watcher several years ago. In the fall, Booklist sent me his latest book, which published in Britain in 2013. The advanced proof jacket has an endorsement from actor Stephen Fry, a clue that it is not a dry scientific text. I was eager to read it. I enjoyed it and wrote a positive review for Booklist, which published in February 2015.

Though full of humorous bits, Ten Million Aliens is a serious book about the diversity of the animal kingdom, and the author has points to make. Among them, Darwin was right to spend years in study of the minuscule to gain understanding of universal principles. Animals evolve over time to survive and propagate, not to improve. There was no inevitable movement to create humans as the pinnacle of evolution. "Lower" forms of life are just as vital and capable as more complex organisms. In a mass extinction, insects are more likely to survive than mammals.

By injecting the funny bits and by alternating invertebrate chapters with chapters about more familiar vertebrate species, Barnes keeps the text lively. Many historical and literary references also keep the story entertaining for non-scientific minds. Ten Million Aliens is a good refresher course on the diversity of life with which we share the earth.

Barnes, Simon. Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom. Atria Books/Marble Arch Press, 2015. 480p. ISBN 9781476730356.

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