A compelling, unsettling, provocative examination of the relation of beast to man.

BEASTS

WHAT ANIMALS CAN TEACH US ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF GOOD AND EVIL

Masson (The Dog Who Couldn't Stop Loving: How Dogs Have Captured Our Hearts for Thousands of Years, 2010, etc.) explores evolutionary history and the animal kingdom for the origins of human violence.

The title of the author’s latest philosophical treatise gets to the heart of the paradox of human cruelty. When compassionate, humans are said to be humane; when violent, they are often compared to ferocious beasts. Even the famous ancient Roman saying, “Man is a wolf to [his fellow] man,” attempts to characterize the human tendency to turn on a fellow creature via the metaphor of the predatory wolf. By looking at behavioral examples here and from elsewhere in the animal kingdom, Masson demonstrates a problem with this beastly association: Evidence suggests that wolves rarely turn on one another. Likewise, orcas, whose brains are much larger and whose life spans parallel ours, do not attack their own kind, and 170 years of field research has revealed only 10 to 20 chimpanzee-on-chimpanzee killings during that time. By contrast, Masson offers the example of the Battle of the Somme, where, by battle’s end, “both sides sustained 1.3 million casualties.” Masson persuasively presents his pacifist, staunchly pro-vegan agenda: Only humans “create artificial and arbitrary distinctions—different race; different language; different religion—for which we are willing to kill and die.” Though the author is quick to admit that no other animal is as likely to come to the aid of another species as humans, he also shows that no other species is as eager to kill for sport. He supports Jared Diamond’s theory that this unrelenting aggression may be traced back over 10,000 years to the advent of agriculture, which introduced multiple levels of social inequality and led to the domestication of animals; this, Masson argues, “has perpetuated a culture of cruelty and abuse. We watch animals who are our prisoners with no awareness of the suffering we have caused them.”

A compelling, unsettling, provocative examination of the relation of beast to man.

Pub Date: March 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-60819-615-9

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2014

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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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