A fine reference and research tool, written with a gracefulness that belies its thoroughness.

BEAUTY AND THE BEASTS

WOMAN, APE AND EVOLUTION

An examination of the extraordinary contributions of female primatologists to the advancement of the field, from primatologist and documentary filmmaker Jahme.

In what is primarily a survey of primate research, Jahme asks the question: Why is it that the best of that research (behavioral ecology in particular) has been conducted by women? It is not the first time that the question has been posed. The author touches briefly upon some conjectures—that women are drawn to primates in search of a lost innocence, for example, or a basic simplicity—but feels most at ease with the notion that women have a facility for communicating telepathically (what the French call complicité) with non-human primates, as a mother would with a child, wordlessly and preternaturally. Jahme then settles comfortably into her overview (with some fine individual portraits) of the women who have undertaken such risky and, in their hands, rewarding work. The research of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas is given detailed coverage, but what is of particular value in this account is the exposure given to other women in the field. Examples include Jeanne Altman’s standards of field research and Thelma Rowell’s study of the baboon’s peaceful matriarchy; Umeyo Mori’s research into the social development of the macaques and Mariko Hirawa-Hasegawa’s coercive sex studies; Sarah Hrdy’s sexual-behavior observations and Devendra Singh’s remarkable work regarding beauty and proportion. Jahme also investigates the history of women and apes in film, and forays into verbal communication with primates, among other topics. She also looks at one of the most awkward challenges faced by women in the field: “They fear that if their science becomes known as a ‘female vocation’ their work will be diminished within the world of science, which is still male dominated and inherently chauvinistic.”

A fine reference and research tool, written with a gracefulness that belies its thoroughness.

Pub Date: July 9, 2001

ISBN: 1-56947-231-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Soho

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2001

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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