When I woke up this morning these words from the Beatles song went through my head:
I’ve got nothing to say but it’s okay;
Good morning, good morning.
That’s because I didn’t have anything in my head to write about, which is what I ponder when reading my emails in bed. So you get persiflage this afternoon!
Going through my files, I found an old book review that my friend Andrew Berry and I wrote some years ago. Andrew looked up our exchange, which dates to October of 2000. Berry had been commissioned by Nature to review of a number of children’s books about science. He and I felt that one was missing—the latest offering from the fabled J. K. Prowling. Even in the absence of such a book, we felt compelled to produce a review. For reasons best known to ourselves, the staff at Nature decided not to publish our review (Berry thinks that we actually submitted this—as a joke.)
I just found out, though that there really is a “Billy the Badger”: the mascot of Fulham FC in London:
Billy the Badger and his Forest Friends
By J K Prowling
Harper-Collins Juvenile (Beginner Books No. 769)
Jerry A. Coyne
(Suggested title: “Badger Baloney”)
Billy the Badger has a problem. Hordes of white-coated scientists, under the direction of the evil Dr. Ron Crabs, are engaged in a big experiment that will kill off not only Billy but many others of his kind. Under the delusion that badgers harbor brucellosis (which supposedly kills the farmers’ cows), the scientists try all manner of nefarious ways to kill badgers, including poisoning their favorite food, crumpets. Knowing that the forest ecosystem will collapse without badgers, all the forest animals turn to Billy, the most sagacious beast among them, for help. In this readable but ultimately unsatisfying and inaccurate book, Billy overcomes many obstacles to save his animal friends. We will not reveal the extremely clever way this is done; but the denouement, in which Crabs is dragged into a badger set and ripped to pieces by his intended victims, is clearly not suitable for children under the age of sixteen.
Like a great deal of children’s literature on animal behaviour, this book paints an inaccurate picture of the natural world. We learn, for example, that Billy lives in an oak-panelled set with Louis XV furnishing and a 16th century grandfather clock. He speaks English, wears spectacles, drinks tea and eats crumpets dripping with melted butter. We are not badger experts, but a brief survey of the technical work on Meles meles reveals this portrait to be utterly misleading. In fact, badgers, presumably with Billy among them, prefer a gritty Bauhaus look, and invariably speak Danish. Spectacles are impractical because of their small ears; this results in the popularity of contact lenses throughout the species. And badgers, as research has shown unequivocally, prefer Heineken when given a choice of beverages. The crumpet issue remains controversial, and the author would have been well advised to steer clear of it. Badgers are well known for liking bratwurst. It’s a matter of great disappointment to us that books written for impressionable youngsters should be replete with errors and half truths.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this book from a biologist’s point of view is the complete absence of information about badger reproduction. Billy has three young friends, Bertie, Benno and Bovril, but they appear magically, as if no interesting biology were involved in their genesis. Yet painstaking observation by generations of dedicated scientists has given us an impressively complete picture of just what goes on in badger sets after the lights have been dimmed and the curtains drawn – after the sun has set on the set. Why is this scenario not depicted in the book? Billy is portrayed as a bachelor inhabiting an entirely male world. The dearth of badger females in Prowling’s worldview suggests a naïve view of badger biology – that it’s all about crumpets, armchairs, pipe tobacco, and dog-eared copies of The Pickwick Papers. In fact, research has shown that the badger singles scene is vibrant and modern – more brushed aluminum than flock wall paper. Prowling should have taken his readers into this exciting world of badger encounter and casual sex; for example, he could have set part of the story in a hopping badger bar like “Jet Set” (turn right at the third oak after the big sycamore tree). In missing these opportunities, Prowling wants us to assume that the numerous young badgers that populate the story appear from nowhere. In these days of RU-480 and condom distribution in schools, surely our young people have a right to know how baby badgers are made.
Finally, the depiction of scientists as monsters bent on destroying anything furry is an unwarranted slur on our profession. Neither of us has ever hurt a badger, and we know at least four other scientists who are humane and agreeable. Mr. Prowling misleads an impressionable segment of the general public on every topic he addresses. His portrayal of science and scientists is as error-strewn as his frankly whimsical and often fictional account of badger biology. This is NOT a book that should be on every graduate student’s shelf. In fact, should you find a copy of it on a student’s shelf, you might want to think about pointing that student towards career alternative, like interior design.
This e-mail is confidential and should not be used by anyone who is either the original intended recipient or a large striped carnivore. If you have received this e-mail in error, please inform Billy the Badger and delete it from your mailbox or any other storage mechanism. Coyne and Berry cannot accept liability for any statements made which are clearly the sender’s own and not expressly made on behalf of John Brockmann, Norton Publishing, or one of their agents.