‘Many an­i­mals learn. Only hu­mans teach’

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - CONTENTS -

sci­en­tists are work­ing to save the north­ern white rhino, cur­rently on the verge of ex­tinc­tion, by freez­ing its cells. It’s a beau­ti­fully writ­ten and per­cep­tive book, that also poses sharp ques­tions about en­vi­ron­men­tal nos­tal­gia and the true value of species.

In the mean­time, the ac­tual di­nosaurs who live right now in our cities – com­monly known as birds – are con­tin­u­ing to evolve. Some birds to­day sing at a higher pitch so they can hear one an­other over the roar of traf­fic; oth­ers have been seen teach­ing them­selves new tricks to get into feed­ing boxes. Dar­win Comes to Town: How the Ur­ban Jun­gle Drives Evo­lu­tion (Quer­cus, £20), by Dutch bi­ol­o­gist Menno Schilthuizen, is a fas­ci­nat­ing sur­vey of how evo­lu­tion­ary change is hap­pen­ing in cities at pre­vi­ously un­sus­pected speeds. Ur­ban lizards have stick­ier feet, and each Lon­don Un­der­ground line now has its own sep­a­rate species of mos­quito.

Ecosys­tems, the au­thor em­pha­sises, are al­ways in flux, and we should recog­nise and value the new city ecosys­tems that are spring­ing up ev­ery­where. In­deed, his book is a chal­lenge to stan­dard con­ser­va­tion prac­tices that at­tempt to turn back the clock and get rid of so-called “in­va­sive species”. Na­ture has be­come ir­re­versibly glob­alised, and – as Jeff Gold­blum said in the orig­i­nal Juras­sic Park film – life finds a way.

Some­times, though, it could use a help­ing hand. Evo­lu­tion has given us a highly so­phis­ti­cated weapon to re­spond to threats – we call it the im­mune sys­tem. But could it be im­proved? One of the fron­tiers of med­i­cal sci­ence is now the re­search into how to su­per­charge the im­mune sys­tem to fight off can­cer and other se­ri­ous dis­eases.

This is the sub­ject of Daniel M Davis’s su­perb The Beau­ti­ful

Cure: Har­ness­ing Your Body’s Nat­u­ral De­fences (Bod­ley Head, £20). Davis deftly sketches the his­tory of im­mune sci­ence and the sur­pris­ing dis­cov­er­ies made by sci­en­tists who were ini­tially ridiculed by their peers – the man who first named in­ter­feron, an anti-vi­ral agent in the blood, was met with dis­be­lief by col­leagues who jok­ingly called it “mis­in­ter­pre­ton”. To­day, sci­en­tists are suc­cess­fully tin­ker­ing with our nat­u­ral im­mune re­sponse in the molec­u­lar equiv­a­lent of tak­ing the brakes off, so that our hunter-killer cells launch war against tu­mours.

Can­cer isn’t unique to hu­mans, of course, and nei­ther are a lot of other things we used to think made us spe­cial. In Adam Ruther­ford’s splen­did The Book of Hu­mans: The Story of How We Be­came Us (Wei­den­feld, £18.99), we learn how gi­raffes en­joy ho­mo­sex­ual assig­na­tions, how dol­phins use sponges to pro­tect their noses, and how birds of the rap­tor class have been ob­served pick­ing up smoul­der­ing twigs from for­est fires, fly­ing away and drop­ping them to start new fires, at which point they swoop and gob­ble up the pan­icked mam­mals and lizards rush­ing away. So what re­ally makes us hu­man? “Many an­i­mals learn. Only hu­mans teach.”

Un­for­tu­nately, be­ing good at teach­ing – or, for that mat­ter, sur­viv­ing can­cer – won’t help us if a large as­teroid strikes the planet, like the one that killed off all the di­nosaurs (ex­cept the birds) 65 mil­lion years ago. And the physi­cist Stephen Hawk­ing, in his posthu­mously pub­lished lit­tle gem, Brief An­swers to the Big Ques­tions (John Mur­ray, £14.99), reck­ons that ei­ther that, or global nu­clear war, or en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe are cer­tain to make Earth un­in­hab­it­able for us within the next 1,000 years. Bit of a downer. To which the an­swer is a bit of an up­per, in the shape of rock­ets tak­ing us to colonise other plan­ets.

Hawk­ing also talks about: aliens (they prob­a­bly ex­ist but they haven’t no­ticed us yet, for which we should prob­a­bly be thank­ful); God (he doesn’t think a de­ity ex­plains any­thing); the ori­gin of the en­tire uni­verse (it’s com­pli­cated); and much else, in el­e­gant and of­ten funny prose. There is also a short pref­ace by Ed­die Red­mayne, who played a young Hawk­ing in The The­ory of Ev­ery­thing, and here bravely vouch­safes the in­for­ma­tion that the first time he met Hawk­ing he made small talk by ob­serv­ing that they shared a star sign. The great man re­sponded by point­ing out that as­trol­ogy is not the same as as­tron­omy.

If we are go­ing to colonise Mars or other plan­ets by rocket, we’re go­ing to need rocket-builders. Luck­ily we al­ready have a few swash­buck­ling souls in­tent on do­ing just that, and they are the sub­ject of Chris­tian Daven­port’s The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Be­zos, and the Quest to Col­o­nize the Cos­mos (PublicAf­fairs, £20). This was writ­ten be­fore Musk’s rather pi­caresque be­hav­iour this sum­mer, when he was in­ter­viewed while smok­ing a mas­sive blunt, to the con­ster­na­tion of some share­hold­ers, and in­ves­ti­gated for fraud by the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion af­ter claim­ing he had the fund­ing to take his elec­tric-car com­pany Tesla pri­vate. But in this book he still comes over as the most hu­mor­ous, as well as the most com­pe­tent, of the bil­lion­aire rocket-men.

The Space Barons com­bines cloak-and-dag­ger cor­po­ra­teespi­onage yarn-spin­ning and a lu­cid his­tory of rocket tech­nol­ogy, with dare­devil sto­ries about test pi­lots, and a num­ber of very large ex­plo­sions. It also sug­gests one an­swer to the de-ex­tinc­tion prob­lem: if we’re go­ing to bring back the di­nosaurs, best do it on an­other planet al­to­gether.

Each line on the Lon­don Un­der­ground has its own sep­a­rate species of mos­quito

Laika stamps from An­i­mal (Phaidon, £39.95)

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