An A-Z of beautiful beasts

Caspar Henderson’s bestiary brings tricky biological science to the fore using beings of the imagination

Scientists often lament the fact that their activities are, for the general public, arcane and linguistically inaccessible. This, the neglected scientist sees as in contrast to the activities of various kinds of artists which, however abstruse, seem to be familiar to and appreciated by the chatterati of the Western World. There are special high profile areas of science such as the Higgs Boson and Black holes and there are scientists such as Fred Hoyle and Stephen Hawkins who have tried to bring their pet topics into the public eye. Sir Peter Medawar in his heyday wrote a number of books about the philosophy of the science in which he was involved. Lewis Thomas, a very eminent medical man in his later years did the same in his splendid essays on cells and cell biology. The Christmas lecture series presented by the Royal Institution in London and broadcast by the BBC are superb and clearly, for their privileged young audience, riveting. But, for all this, the latest advances in science remain largely unspoken of round the dinner tables where the latest novel, the Booker Prize and Tom Stoppard’s newest venture are discussed.

This state of affairs is partly the fault of the scientists themselves in that, in the main, they see little mileage in making their activities available more widely.

This volume by Caspar Henderson is the kind of thing that really could change this state of affairs. Henderson is a distinguished journalist who has clearly travelled widely, who is well read and who can readily present some of the wonders of the World of Science in a perspective that could encourage wide appreciation.

Henderson sets out to write an aletheiagoria, a word he has invented signifying the truth about phantasmagoria, with perhaps a backward glance at the alethiometer, with its thirty six almost zodiacal symbols, beloved of the fans of Phillip Pullman.

The format adopted by Henderson is that of a Bestiary, a book that in mediaeval times contained an account of beasts of various kinds some real and some mythical but in all instances with much presentation of their human context.

The present text is beautifully illustrated each chapter having its own frontispiece and with happy little line drawings throughout the book. The photographs used in the text are less praiseworthy being in black and white often rather small and only barely depicting the organisms under the eye of the author. ‘Beasts’ described as of beautiful and various colours should surely be shown as such.

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A wide outer margin on the text, in addition to providing space for drawings, has a liberal sprinkling of what could be called footnotes if they were not at the side. At the end of the book is a first class index and an impressive array of source references. The cover is splendid with illuminated capitals and, as it happens, the chapters relate each to a letter of the alphabet which the organism under consideration starts with. henderson couldn’t decide which X organism to include, so there are two organism chapters starting with X.

Henderson is impressed with the wonder, beauty of the twenty seven organisms he uses as his chapter titles. Each chapter drifts to a varying degree away from the exact subject. Their evolutionary context is usually considered, their likely survival, for the majority of organisms that are extant, the general lessons which emerge and the impact of climate change. The whole provides a series of thoughtful essays on topics as various as the origin of life, eyes of many kinds, the conquest of South America by Cortes, the human genome (which since the book was written no longer seems to have eighty per cent junk DNA but rather an elaborate series of switch mechanisms which will keep the molecular biologists in business for many more happy years), pterodactyls and cooperation in the animal world (between honey badgers and their avian guides). It is all eminently readable.

The overall impact is stunning. It is a fine and accessible work of scholarship. For school children any of the chapters could be used in addition to worms, crayfish, dogfish, frog and rabbit as exemplars of the natural world. Some of the organisms under discussion are called extremophiles which inhabit places in which the temperature, pressure, lack of light and chemical environment would be thought to be inimical to life. They are not. Henderson hints, as have others such as Richard Fortey in his ‘Survivors’, that Homo sapiens is a new child on the evolutionary block and on present evidence not likely to stop for long. To peruse this bestiary is to begin to learn of the extraordinary variety of life forms and to touch on beings far more beautiful, intricate and fascinating than many of the man- made artefacts deriving from the world of visual arts. Henderson hopes that the Bestiary he has devised has deep lessons for the future of mankind. It is to be hoped he is right.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, A 21st Century bestiary, by Caspar Henderson is published by Granta, �25.00