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.
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.
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?
The answer will follow in a week or two.