A pellucid spin through the contours of the human brain and the folds of the human body.
Holmes (Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn, 2005, etc.) is a skilled practitioner of the rocks-for-jocks school of science writing. Thus it is that she ventures observations such as, “Noise is a disturbance among air molecules,” and “The orangutan eats for five hours a day…Dust mites eat skin around the clock, without cease.” All that basic science has a point, though, providing the basis for Holmes’s deeper subject of explaining why humans are different from the other denizens of creation, for better or worse. As she appends to her battery of prandial statistics, our species has the evolutionary advantage—maybe—of being able to rip open a package, zap it and consume it in a few minutes, thereby freeing ourselves to do great things such as plan trips to the moon and plot the extinction of other species. The careful reader will learn scads of facts to attend to all kinds of questions they may not have known they had. Why is it that anorexics don’t ovulate? It’s because “nature abhors waste,” including the waste of an egg to a malnourished environment. Do creatures other than humans lie? Sure—a spider who bounces in her web when threatened does so to send the message that she’s many times bigger than she really is. Do animals get divorced? Yes, but they don’t have to pay lawyers to do so. As the author notes, “Flamingo couples almost always split up; masked booby marriages last about half of the time; about 10 percent of mute swan unions dissolve.” Holmes happily details what distinguishes us from them, which turns out to be both less and more than one might have thought.
Careful science meets good writing—a pleasure for fans of Lewis Thomas, Natalie Angier and other interpreters of scientific fact.