Robots read, talk, and beat grandmasters at chess, but, given legs, they can barely walk. How living creatures move turns out to be complicated but not dull, writes British biologist and science writer Wilkinson in this ingenious but not-dumbed-down history of life’s 4-billion-year progress in getting from one place to another.
Human walking, a dazzlingly efficient process, takes up the first two of the author’s 10 chapters. Readers not only learn the role of bipedalism in our evolution—less dramatic than enthusiasts claimed; it developed while our ancestors still lived in trees—but more about musculoskeletal kinetics and lateral versus dynamic sequence gaits. Birds, bats, and insects fly, but in a denser medium, so do fish. Wilkinson, a zoologist and science writer at the University of Cambridge, delivers a precisely detailed account of how they manage without ignoring the aero- and hydrodynamic principles that make it possible. Plants, bacteria, and protozoa have their own surprisingly sophisticated ways of getting around. Although these three do fine without one, the brain itself evolved as a locomotor organ. The study of DNA gets the headlines, but Wilkinson makes a good case that simple movement deserves equal billing. “It wasn’t until locomotion came on the scene that the living world came of age and became more than biochemistry alone,” writes the author. “If self-propulsion had never evolved, life would be nothing more than a few scattered and short-lived patches of unusually complex chemistry, running inconsequently on the ocean floor of an otherwise dead planet.” Wilkinson delves into physics, anatomy, and physiology as well as biology, and he doesn’t hesitate to throw in the occasional equation.
This is not light reading, but readers willing to pay close attention will come away with a deep understanding of an essential basis of life.