The House

The Modern Bestiary

A Curated Collection of Wondrous Creatures

- By Joanna Bagniewska & Jennifer N R Smith Publisher Wild re

From microscopi­c eyebrow mites to bu er ies that feast on crocodile tears, Joanna Bagniewska has produced a simultaneo­usly riveting and somewhat hackneyed bestiary

Originally, bestiaries were wri en for moralising and/or religious purposes. For instance, medieval Christian bestiaries illustrate­d the wonders of God’s creation, as well as containing moral lessons. eir connection with biological reality was loose, and ctional animals – such as unicorns, gri ns, mermaids and phoenixes – appeared alongside real animals. Right up to the early 19th century, the design of living creatures was seen as evidence for a creator, as expounded by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural

eology: Or Evidence of the Existence and A ributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearance­s of Nature.

Ever since Charles Darwin, scientists have agreed that the “design” of living creatures results from natural selection and not from a creator. Paley drew the comparison between the design of a watch, with its intricate workings aimed to achieve accurate time keeping, and the design of living things, with equivalent­ly intricate workings – all apparently designed for a purpose. Richard Dawkins titled his 1986 book e Blind Watchmaker to underscore the point that the appearance of intelligen­t design in nature is not evidence of a “watchmaker”: it is the product of the blind, cumulative, incrementa­l process of natural selection with no ultimate purpose.

Joanna Bagniewska’s e Modern Bestiary consists of 100 two-page chapters, each one describing the remarkable and o en peculiar behaviour, anatomy or life history of a particular species. As the author acknowledg­es, selecting 100 out of the roughly 1.4m known species of animals inevitably means that many readers will search in vain for their favourite. e hundred species are grouped under “earth”, “water” and “air”, for terrestria­l, aquatic and airborne species respective­ly. Most are vertebrate­s (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and sh) or arthropods (insects, spiders, crustacean­s). As the author emphasises in her introducti­on, all the facts reported in her bestiary, however odd, are – in contrast with medieval bestiaries – backed up by hard scienti c evidence.

How well does e Modern Bestiary ful l its aim of inspiring excitement and interest in the products of evolution? I think it is a bit of a curate’s egg. On the one hand, many of the biological facts are riveting and engaging: for instance, the biology of the microscopi­c mites that you

“The reader is often left with more questions than answers”

and I have living in our eyebrows, or the bu er ies that drink crocodile tears. On the other hand, the reader is o en le with more questions than answers: the book is very super cial in explaining why and how behaviours and structures evolved. I also found the corny, faux-tabloid style of writing annoying. “Ah, ants, the cool kids of the invertebra­te world”, or “Knock knock! Who’s there? It is aye!” as an introducti­on to the chapter on the Madagascan lemur called the Aye Aye with its extraordin­arily long middle nger used for extracting grubs from ro en wood.

You may enjoy thumbing through the book to glean interestin­g anecdotes for dinner party conversati­ons, but don’t expect to gain much insight into how evolution by natural selection works.

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