Two new biology books

April 15, 2012 • 5:42 am

This week the New York Times reviews two biology books, one of which I’ll be reading for sure.

The one I’ll probably give a miss is in today’s Book Review section: The Great Animal Orchestra, written by musician Bernie Krause and reviewed by Jeremy Denk, a concert pianist and blogger. The review is mixed:

After a stint with the Weavers (he replaced Pete Seeger), a foray into electronic music and some not-too-surprising drug use, by “Hardyesque chance” he ended up in the Muir Woods recording nature sounds for an album. Now he is high on hippo grunts and insect drones, having spent decades recording and archiving wild soundscapes. He chronicles his life choices and epiphanies, guides us through nature’s sonic treasures, makes interesting assertions about the musicianship of animals (human and nonhuman), and begs us to pay attention. . .

Krause spends many pages challenging the human monopoly on musicianship. He asserts that in the wild, animals vocalize with a musicianly ear to the full score of the ecosystem — a mix of competition and cooperation. Since animals depend on being heard for various reasons (mating, predation, warning, play), they are forced to seek distinct niches: “Each resident species acquires its own preferred sonic bandwidth — to blend or contrast — much in the way that violins, woodwinds, trumpets and percussion instruments stake out acoustic territory in an orchestral arrangement.”

An extraordinary claim arises from this “niche hypothesis”: the healthier the habitat, the more “musical” the creatures, the richer and more diverse their scores. Sound complexity is a measure of health.

Well, I’m not sure how one defines the “health” of a habitat.  If it’s vulnerability to human damage, the rainforest is at least as vulnerable, but far more acoustically diverse, than the Antarctic.

. . . spadefoot toads, chorusing together to confuse predators as to any individual location. That last example is heartbreaking; when a jet flies overhead, the toads get out of sync. The temporary lack of ensemble proves deadly: soon hawks swoop down on individual choristers. In other words, the toads’ music is a communal shelter. Music is expression, communication — but also protection.

Denton’s review is generally positive but mixed: he faults the book for being messy and tendentious; but perhaps some of you, including the many readers who are musicians or know a lot about music, may want to read it (it’s here on Amazon).


Richard Fortey is a science writer who was formerly a respected paleontologist at London’s Natural History Museum.  Like Dawkins, he has the rare double honor of election to both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. In Madrid last Thanksgiving, I had dinner with Richard and his wife Jackie, and found them delightful dinner companions (Fortey is a terrific raconteur):

Richard and Jackie Fortey at a post-conference dinner in Madrid (see his hourlong lecture on trilobites posted by Matthew Cobb)

Fortey has written seven books and, though I’ve read only three, they’ve gotten better with time. I gave Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth a mixed review in the New York Times (I thought the writing a bit overblown), but recommended it on the whole. In the interim Fortey’s prose has become tighter and better, and the man has some marvelous stories to tell. I loved Trilobite! and especially Dry Storeroom No. 1, an engrossing look at London’s Natural History Museum, where Fortey worked for so many years (at dinner he told me some anecdotes about the place that were too salacious for the book).

Fortey has a new book, and it’s about “living fossils,” those plants and animals that have persisted for millions of years without much change in their morphology (think ginkgo tree, coelocanth, and horseshoe crab, and see my earlier post here).  To evolutionists, these species are a mystery: why have they remained unchanged so long? One explanation—that they simply lack genetic variation that fuels evolution—is probably wrong: work ages ago by Bob Selander and Dick Lewontin showed that horseshoe crabs are just as genetically variable in their DNA as more malleable species.  Another classic explanation is that these species simply live in unchanging environments, so that they arrived at their optimal morphology eons ago and there’s nothing new to adapt to.  That’s an appealing but largely untestable explanation, especially because some creatures that live in similar habitats (like the shallow marine habitats of the horseshoe crab) have undergone substantial evolutionary change.

At any rate, Fortey’s new book is Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind, and it was reviewed in Thursday’s NYT.  Reviewer Dwight Garner gives it two thumbs up, and I’ll be reading it for sure, if for no other reason to see Fortey’s explanation for unchanging species. A snippet from the review:

The good news about “Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms” is that Mr. Fortey is as vivid and charming about live things as he’s long been about dead ones, perhaps even more so. Reading this book is like stepping into the field with a man who’s equal parts naturalist and poet, let’s say equal parts E. O. Wilson and Paul Muldoon. The Wilson in him wields the notebook; the Muldoon flutters. It’s a bewitching combination.

At that orgy on the Delaware beach Mr. Fortey delivers real science, reminding us, for example, that horseshoe crabs aren’t crabs at all. Like trilobites, they are arthropods, “animals with jointed legs and all the muscles and tendons tucked inside an exoskeleton.” He dilates on their history, their character and what threatens them still.

But he also describes them, wonderfully, as resembling “inverted colanders.” The sharp spines on their head shields remind him of “the perky eyebrows I associate with clerics of a certain age.” He describes their hue as “the kind of color I used to get as a kid when I mixed all my powder paints together.”

Can I quote Mr. Fortey on horseshoe crabs a moment longer? Noting the pincers at the bottom of one, he says, “I am reminded of the manual toolkit owned by the eponymous hero of the movie ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ ” When he flips a stranded horseshoe crab over, it moves away with “the slow progress of a confused old lady on a walker.”

You begin to love Mr. Fortey as much as he loves horseshoe crabs. You want to throw him over your shoulder, like a big stuffed animal won at a fair, and lug him home to explain the mysteries of your backyard.

Having spent several hours with Fortey, I agree with this assessment. Like Dan Dennett, he’s a lovable bear of a man, infectiously excited about biology. The reviewer, noting that the writing isn’t quite perfect, still gives the book a strong recommendation:

There is no denying that, as “Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms” moves on, there are numbing moments. Your enthusiasm about sponges, for example, will not equal his. He is not utterly immune to cliché.

Yet his book is not only well built and witty but emotionally profound too. It’s the work of a survivor appraising other survivors. “The inescapable truth is that luck for old-timers will eventually run out,” he writes. “It always does.”. . .

. . . In the meantime Mr. Fortey’s book is an inducement to be as awake and observant as possible. A wallflower at life’s orgy, he’s delivered a book that’s a squirming eyeful.

Sadly, Garner doesn’t mention Fortey’s own explanation for morphological “stasis,” and that’s a serious omission. After all, it’s their unchanging appearance over millions of years that makes these plants and animals so interesting, and the hypotheses for that surely form an important part of the book.  I’m sure they’re in there, but you’ll have to buy it, as I will, to find out.

17 thoughts on “Two new biology books

    1. The book’s UK title is Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind, presumably because the BBC thought that Survivors was a snappier title for the series.


  1. There’s a mistake in the NYT review: “real” crabs are arthropods, just as are horseshoe crabs and trilobites. That being said, my local library system has this book on order, and after reading this installment of WEIT, I’m now first in line to read it when it comes in. I still remember the first time I saw a horseshoe crab when I was a kid–it looked so weird! Almost like an alien “rocket ship” (it was in the 1950s). The book should be a good read.

    1. Which is the fourth Fortey book you read (in my quick reading, I counted three)? Earth, perhaps?

      Anyway, those would be the four I have on my shelf, and I loved all of them. I can understand the comment about the writing in Life, but then again, I quite like his fondness for the romantics, which shows in his writing.

      Glad to hear that his new book is out in the US now. I think it came out in the UK a while ago already (with the title Survivors, I think. Thinking of that, I liked the UK title of Life better: Life, an unauthorized biography). I’ll definitely read this one.

      1. Sorry that my above post appears as a reply while I have nothing to reply – matter of clicking the wrong button on a Sunday morning!

  2. Commenting very nearly in the dark, here, as I’ve only read that which Dr. Coyne has posted about the book and its review, but here goes anyway.

    One problem with the Krause is that he seems to be regarding raw sound as the primary object in music. I’d say music is much more about the way our advanced brains use sound to represent logic. Given this conception, does it really make sense to claim other animals create music? They certainly use sound to accomplish various objectives, but that’s not the same, it seems to me.

    Jeremy Denk has a reputation as “the thinker’s musician”, although I’m not entirely convinced it’s deserved. His blog posts often dwell on superficial observations.

    1. The Krause book was serialized on BBC Radio 4 a few weeks ago, & it was a bit of a curate’s egg from what I heard, though I have not read it. Fortey is very good & an engaging speaker – I heard him at the RS last year & got him to sign one of his books.

  3. As far as we can tell, horseshoe crabs have been doing the exact same thing in the same kinds of places for over 400 million years. I don’t see why stabilizing selection on an especialy effective phenotype isn’t a plausible explanation for their morphological conservatism, same as for coelacanths (typo in OP).

    Now the velvet worms of Fortey’s title are a very different story–there are easily recognizable onychophorans in the Cambrian Burgess Shale deposits, which were of course marine in origin, but the few extant species are completely terrestrial. I too look forward to reading the book.

    As for the music-in-nature book, meh. Animal sounds are like music just like the sounds of a babbling brook or the wind in the trees are like music–i.e. not very. I’m also not buying the anecdote about hawks picking out individual spadefoots by sound–hawks are extremely visual hunters. Citation needed.

  4. At that orgy on the Delaware beach Mr. Fortey delivers real science, reminding us, for example, that horseshoe crabs aren’t crabs at all. Like trilobites, they are arthropods, “animals with jointed legs and all the muscles and tendons tucked inside an exoskeleton.”

    When they locked up the copy editors, I remained silent; I was not a copy editor.

    Most of my life, I’ve been vacationing in horseshoe crab country. Only in recent decades, as their number has declined, has their beauty been widely recognized.

    ” When he flips a stranded horseshoe crab over, it moves away with “the slow progress of a confused old lady on a walker.”

    Ah, but if you have vantage to observe them in the water, they are wonderfully graceful, gliding with all motion hidden.

  5. HERE is a very useful review of the British edition of the Fortey book on by a reader [Dr. Geoffrey Kemball Cook] whose other reviews on the site are well balanced.

    His main criticism of the book is as follows:

    “Finally I guess my most damning conclusion (the thing that frustrated me most) is that despite the wealth of fascinating information, mostly well-marshalled and treated with a light enough touch not to put off general readers, I felt I had learned almost nothing about WHY the organisms featured were survivors. Some have survived for over 500 million years while over 99% of their known fellow species have disappeared. It is not enough to describe them and their habitats, even at first hand to hold a particularly fascinating jellyfish or toad: these organisms (bacteria, plants and animals) shared their environments with hundreds or thousands of other organism species, none of which have survived. What made the difference? As a biological scientist myself, I want to go beyond the pleasant feeling of awe engendered by the knowledge that these organisms have hung around for 5000 times the life of humans on the planet – I want to know what it takes to be a survivor, not just that they ARE survivors. I’m sure Fortey tried to get this across, but I didn’t get it. My fault probably!

    But you must make your own mind up. It’s certainly a fascinating topic (how could it be otherwise), and a lot of it is good. But to me it feels rushed – it could have been far better, and more satisfying”

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