From the perspective of biology, the rules for the game of life are simple: acquire energy, avoid becoming food for someone else in the process, and pass on your genetic information. This simple theme has given rise to an incredibly rich and diverse panoply of approaches and solutions. Strange Survivors, written by Puerto Rican biologist Oné R. Pagán, is a love letter to the many wonders that biology has to offer. I am sure he would approve if I said: “Prepare to be amazed!”
Opening this book, I was immediately reminded of Emlen’s Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle I read some years ago, and this is the first book Pagán refers to himself. After introducing the basics of evolution and biochemistry, Strange Survivors presents an eclectic potpourri of nature’s marvels. We get a chapter on bioelectricity and how this finds its use in electric eels and rays. There is a long chapter on venoms, toxins and poisons throughout the tree of life, clearly a favourite topic of the author. We meet the powerful punch packed by mantis shrimps in a chapter on the use of insanely fast motion at small scales. And finally, Pagán talks about cooperation, from eusociality in insects to endosymbiosis. The selection of organisms included seems somewhat haphazard, and they are treated cursorily, Pagán being quick to refer the reader to the reference section for suggestions to further reading.
Pagán decided to write this book as if he was having a conversation with the reader. As a consequence his writing is conversational, chatty even, and the text is littered with exclamation marks, humorous footnotes, pop-culture references, interjections, and rhetorical questions. Maybe I have grown a bit jaded, or maybe I have become too British after seven years here, but I found it a bit much at times. On the other hand, here is a writer who truly remembers the wonder felt when you first opened your biology textbooks and learned completely new things. He talks about these topics while maintaining that attitude of innocence and is keen to share his enthusiasm with the reader. Sure enough, I learned many new interesting facts along the way, and wrote down a fair few other books to check out in the future. Strange Survivors is thus a popular science book that you can safely put in the hands of readers with little or no background in biology.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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