Off-topic: The Variety of Life

April 14, 2008

I’m going to exploit this site to post a (very rare) off-topic book recommendation. So here it is: The Variety of Life — a survey and a celebration of all the creatures that have ever lived, by Colin Tudge.

The Variety of Life by Colin Tudge

I’ve just finished reading this hefty book — 684 pages in the paperback edition — and I’ve found it fantastically invigorating. I’ve often bemoaned how stupidly over-specialised my zoological knowledge is: really, outside the realm of mid-to-posterior neosauropod dorsals, I am pretty darned hopeless, and Darren’s effortless mastery of pretty much every tetrapod group leaves me awestruck. Having come to the end of this whistle-stop tour of the whole of Biota — three domains, more kingdoms than you can shake a stick at, and hundreds of freakier lifestyles than I’d ever imagined — I’ve come to realise what a tiny and parochial corner of biology we inhabit here at SV-POW! towers.

The book is in two and a half sections. Part 1 consists of five chapters (90 pages or so) on the history and philosophy of biological classification, an outline of cladistic methodology and molecular biology techniques and a plea for a rather odd taxonomic approach that he terms “Neolinnaean Impressionism”, and which amounts to a PN-like naming of the nodes but with Linnean ranks arbitrarily imposed on some though not all of the nodes. While Tudge is not strongly attached to the idea that sister groups must have equal rank, he clearly has inclinations in that direction, resulting in several monogeneric “kingdoms” and some odd maneouvering towards the end of the book where he seems to consider Proboscidea and Coleoptera of equal importance for conservation purposes because they are both of rank “order”. *cough*. Well, let’s pass swiftly on.

Part 2 of the book, and by far its bulk, is the survey of all living creatures — 25 chapters covering Biota in 500-odd pages, broken down as follows: one chapter on how the old “two kingdoms” became “three domains”, one chapter briefly covering both Bacteria and Archaea, one on basal eukaryotes, one on fungi, a whopping eighteen on animals, and three on plants. Finally, part 3 is an “epilogue” concerning the need for conservation, the efficacy of various strategies and finally the reasons we should care.

Parts 1 and 3 have some interesting material, to be sure, but the survey is the heart of the book in every way. You can get some sense of how much ground it covers by reading the following paragraph from p. 430:

The Sauropodomorpha includes the Prosauropoda and the Sauropoda — the most famous examples of the latter being the huge herbivorous brachiosaurs of the Brachiosauridae, and Diplodocus of the Diplodocidae.

That’s it folks — that’s the entire coverage of sauropods. And it’s not that they get particularly short shrift, either: that’s how most groups are covered. Super-quick, very direct, bam, onto the next one. Because there is so much ground to cover.

So having read this, it’s not as though I particularly feel I have any real understanding of, say, cnidarians, “brown seaweeds” or sea-spiders. But at least I know they’re out there, and I know what it is that I don’t know. I feel richer and wiser (though also more aware of how stupendously ignorant I am) for having read it.

Obligatory Amazon links: UK and USA.

And finally, to keep the SV-POW! promise, here is a sauropod vertebra picture: but what is it? I’m not giving too much away if I say that it’s an NHM specimen (and therefore their copyright) — but who (apart from Matt and Darren) can tell me what it is?

What is it?  What could it possibly be?

The answer will follow in a week or two.

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5 Responses to “Off-topic: The Variety of Life”

  1. Mike from Ottawa Says:

    If that pic was taken a bit more from the right, I’d be able to read the label. Actually, I think I can read enough of the second line of the label to guess, but that’s just cheating. So much for my chances!

    Without scale and the context (being on SVPOW!), would the opening in the side just to the left of the ’2239′ tag be enough on its own to say this was a sauropod rather than anything else?

    I, for one, will not cavil at the posting of book reviews. You guys know a lot of stuff and I’d value your recommendations, even if it’s not about those most wonderful of legacies our Earth has left us, the sauropod vertebrae. I’ve ordered the book.

    Oh, and shouldn’t this also, because Tudge doubtless mentions them, be tagged with “stinkin’ mammals”?

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Mike. I don’t want to say anything more about the mystery photograph yet, except that you should feel free to read the label if you can: anything included in the picture is fair game.

  3. Matt Wedel Says:

    Well, it can’t be part of Xenoposeidon.

    It’s too complete.

    Don’t forget to tip your servers.


  4. Darren already gave away what this is (3rd comment down)…your pic has 2239 on it, which is what he talked about, yes…?

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hmm, well, Jerry is right.

    So far as he goes.

    But there is more to it than Darren said in that comment (as I hinted in a comment of my own a little further down that page).


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