If you have the slightest curiosity about the millions of species with which we share the planet, Simon Barnes’s delightful new book will satisfy and whet it in equal measure. Picking out a hundred from these millions (a selection that ranges from gorillas to earthworms), Barnes provides a crisp, evocative history of each creature – and even better, of humanity’s relationship to it: real and symbolic.
Lions, for instance, have been part of human life from the dawn of our species, he writes, drawing evocatively on a pair of footprints from Tanzania’s Laetoli Gorge, possibly made by some adult hominid parent escorting a child to safety some 3.6 million years ago.
If the lion is our most ancient enemy, it is also humanity’s most admired symbol of masculine courage. Courageous warriors and kings have long been compared to lions, but have also spent a lot of time killing them. Lion-hunting became a mark of human courage, of our conquest of nature – and as we devised better and better weapons, while also just wiping out their natural habitat, lions began to disappear from more and more parts of the world. “The retreat of lions is the story of the advance of humanity,” writes Barnes, and it doesn’t seem an exaggeration.
If lions exemplify our changing relationship with the wildest part of nature – ie, fear, conquest and now increasingly expiation, then the house cat might be seen as the embodiment of its opposite – the domestication of the natural world. Barnes makes the commonsensical argument that as human societies became settled and agricultural, cats kept rodents from the stores of grain – but having once been a cat owner, he also brings in the ineffable pleasure humans derive from scratching a cat between the ears and having it purr in contentment. Cats were useful, yes, but they were also company. “Thus human civilisation advanced to the sound of the purring cat.”
Some of Barnes’s choices of species are more particular, connected to a specific discovery or episode in human history. For example, an early chapter is devoted to the existence of four different kinds of mockingbirds in the Galapagos Islands, apparently crucial in nudging Charles Darwin towards the world-changing argument about evolution that he eventually published in On the Origin of Species (1859). Another dips into the incredible and tragic history of the American bison, succinctly explaining both how that single species helped sustain Native American civilisation and how its near-total extermination was crucial to the founding of the settler-colonial economy that formed modern USA. Yet another takes on the Oriental rat flea, responsible for several world-historical outbreaks of bubonic plague.
But this is among many instances where Barnes comes across as rather obviously Eurocentric. The Justinian Plague of the sixth century AD, named for the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, and the heavily mythologised Black Death of medieval Europe get vastly greater attention from him than the much more recent Third Plague Pandemic, which he merely describes as having “killed 12 million people in India and China” between the 1850s and 1960. This seems particularly strange for a book published in the midst of Covid-19.
Even a cursory reading of Wikipedia reveals the Third Plague Pandemic to be a world-historical outbreak in more ways than one – starting in a poor mining community in Yunnan in the 1850s, reaching cities like Canton and Hong Kong in the late 19th century, and travelling from those port cities via the trade routes to India, where British colonial regulations to control the plague – widely seen as repressive and culturally intrusive – became the focus of nationalist agitation and violence.
Barnes’s chapter on cattle, while it does a fine job of pointing out how deeply many human cultures identify beef-eating as the embodiment of plenty, wraps up the Hindu exception in a single sentence about McDonald’s not serving beefburgers in India. His chapter on the pig feels like a cursory dip rather than the immersive essay owed to an animal so painstakingly forbidden and deeply abhorred by several world religions. But for Barnes, even the Revolt of 1857 having been triggered by the use of pig and beef fat on cartridges elicits only wry British understatement: “The strength of feeling about pork is startling”. He mentions the pig toilet in India, but only Goa, not the North-East.
Perhaps it’s only to be expected. The gaps in Barnes’s exposure can sometimes unwittingly reduce vast swathes of humanity into insignificance in his version of “the World”, but he does vastly better than most Western authors might. He plays to his strengths – and as a well-read, well-travelled ex-journalist (he was Chief Sports Writer at The Times until 2014), those are many.
The author of fourteen books, Barnes has a great eye and ear for detail, and his understanding of the natural world draws on the best of English literature, from John Donne on the elephant (“The only harmless great thing”) to Coleridge on the albatross, from Kipling on cats to Orwell on pigs. And his book does range far and wide, his choices unaffected by the size of the animal, the extent of its terrain, or the length of time it influenced the course of human history.
Myths and reality
Sometimes a category is supremely general, as in the chapter on cattle. Sometimes it is necessarily specific: he has individual chapters on the house fly, the tstese fly and the fruit fly, as well as on the pigeon/dove, the (extinct) passenger pigeon and the pink pigeon. Either way, Barnes is always good for peeling away the pervasive myths with which humans like to surround the animal species.
He tells us, for instance, that the insatiable flesh-eating piranha is a myth – more remarkably, a myth invented by Amazonian locals in 1913 for the benefit of the then-American President Theodore Roosevelt, who had arrived there on a hunting expedition. The locals apparently filled a netted-off stretch of river with piranhas left unfed for weeks, creating a stressed, hungry, overcrowded population of piranhas that then obligingly devoured a cow lowered into the water, to Roosevelt’s everlasting awe.
A lifelong hunter, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was also responsible for a reverse sort of mythmaking – the fantasy figure of the cuddly, cute, quasi-human bear. In 1902, he refused to shoot a black bear already cornered by dogs and beaten with clubs. The incident became a Washington Post cartoon, with Roosevelt portrayed as a “hunter of mercy”, writes Barnes, and a subsequently smaller and cuter version of the bear then became enshrined in the children’s toy we call a teddy bear.
But what brings the book alive is not Barnes’s ability to cheerily condense reams of information, note the inevitable ironies of our mythical versions of most animals, patiently address persistent factual misconceptions, or sound the alarm, yet again, about the need for humans to recognise how we’re endangering other species and thus potentially destroying the planet. It is the enchantment he clearly experiences in the presence of the natural world, not just in flesh and blood (as when instinctively standing stock-still when confronted by a lion he had woken up by mistake in the African jungle), but also in the mind.
In the midst of a chapter on the nightingale, for instance, we suddenly hear about him hearing the wind whistle through two hollow bones on a breezy day in Zambia and feeling like he had invented music “or at least recapitulated that moment in human history, quite by chance.” There is clearly much about our relationship to animals that we need to fix pronto – but magic always works better than mourning.
The History of the World in 100 Animals, Simon Barnes, Simon & Schuster.
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