British sportswriter Barnes (The Meaning of Sport, 2005, etc.) takes a stretch to write about the 10 million species, more or less, that share the world with humankind.
The figure is debatable, but no matter; there’s a certain inviting quality to any natural history text that asserts that the so-called lesser creatures are not so much lesser than we and that “the mite that lives in the follicles of your eyelashes is as fully, as exquisitely, as perfectly evolved as you are.” Barnes follows with a description of slug sex, which is not a matter for the squeamish. Taking the opportunity to introduce the technical term “apophallation,” he notes that the culmination of a bout of slug love is for one of the parties involved to chew off the penis of the sort-of male, because slugs are hermaphroditic up to then, after which the slug, now without, continues life as a female. “A backbone isn’t essential to an interesting life,” he sagely observes. Sadly, some of that charm wears off quickly as Barnes indulges. For one thing, he overwrites startlingly, sometimes with an eye to establishing street cred: “I’ve experienced quite a lot…wildebeest in the Serengeti, dolphins breaching in front of the boat, eye contact with a bear, a colony of bee-eaters, a stooping falcon, a gathering of crocodiles, a horizon-filling chorus of frogs, leaping salmons, being within touching distance of 12-foot basking sharks, watching the passeggiata in the Piazza Navona.” The tendency to overstate runs strong throughout, although there are some useful pointers that help make up for it, including how to bluff your way out of being eaten by a lion.
Barnes’ tour of life is entertaining and informative, though it doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Ackerman, Durrell and Attenborough.