No wild claims, but only “credible stories of the ways . . . animals use their wits.” Draw your own conclusions, says...

From an award-winning journalist (The Parrot's Lament, 1999, etc.), tantalizing conjecture about what lies behind the canny behavior of animals.

Even if one starts at the ground floor—“scientists do not know what produces intelligence (or even what it is)”—it seems clear that certain animal behavior can be viewed as of the higher cognitive sort, since it demonstrates deception, trade and barter, games, cooperation, the making and use of tools. These acts and achievements may be serendipitous or simple association, if approached from a reductionist viewpoint. But why leave it there, asks Linden. Why not take a cognitive leap of our own and hypothesize “that if animals can think at all, they probably do their best thinking when it serves their purposes”? Linden is the first to admit that the anecdotes leading up to this are ambiguous. Rather than taking that as defeat, though, he uses it as an opportunity to wiggle into the crack: There is the “lingering sense of wonder” when one contemplates the possible skullduggery of the octopus, its observational learning (though it’s a solitary creature), and its distributional intelligence (neurons acting together, rather than a centralized brain). How else is one to explain zoopharmacognosy, those instances of animal self-medication? Or those times when Orcas play catch-and-release with seagulls, using bait to lure the birds to the water’s surface, taking them in their mouths and then letting them go (though snacking on them, too, sometimes)? Or consider the orangutan: it makes a lasso out of its hair to get at mangoes outside its cage, then hides the pits to avoid detection. Here are potential examples of metacognition, “the ability to reflect on and adjust thinking,” and Linden is willing to conjecture even beyond that, into the realms of telepathy and shared vision between animals.

No wild claims, but only “credible stories of the ways . . . animals use their wits.” Draw your own conclusions, says Linden, and keep an open mind.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2002

ISBN: 0-525-94661-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2002




A quirky wonder of a book.

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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020



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

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: Feb. 29, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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