I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
It may be a wonderful world, but as Dan Riskin (cohost of Discovery Canada’s Daily Planet) explains, it’s also a dangerous, disturbing, and disgusting one. At every turn, it seems, living things are trying to eat us, poison us, use our bodies as their homes, or have us spread their eggs. In Mother Nature Is Trying to Kill You, Riskin is our guide through the natural world at its most gloriously ruthless.
Using the seven deadly sins as a road map, Riskin offers dozens of jaw-dropping examples that illuminate how brutal nature can truly be. From slothful worms that hide in your body for up to thirty years to wrathful snails with poisonous harpoons that can kill you in less than five minutes to lustful ducks that have orgasms faster than you can blink, these fascinating accounts reveal the candid truth about “gentle” Mother Nature’s true colors.
Riskin’s passion for the strange and his enthusiastic expertise bring Earth’s most fascinating flora and fauna into vivid focus. Through his adventures— which include sliding on his back through a thick soup of bat guano just to get face-to-face with a vampire bat, befriending a parasitic maggot that has taken root on his head, and coming to grips with having offspring of his own—Riskin makes unexpected discoveries not just about the world all around us but also about the ways this brutal world has shaped us as humans and what our responsibilities are to this terrible, wonderful planet we call home.
A catchy title designed to sell books. Obviously, Riskin decided to take a former host of Daily Planet (Jay Ingram) as a role model when he wrote this volume. (This made me realize how out of touch I am with the state of TV broadcasting in Canada, as I didn’t recognize his name at all –but I’m still glad I got rid of the television three years ago!) The author is a bat researcher and travels to see different bat species. As a birder, I was immediately on the band wagon. I believe that eco-tourism is one way of making wildlife valuable enough to convince governments to preserve it. If live animals bring in millions of dollars on a regular basis and dead ones yield only thousands for one time only, it becomes attractive to keep your wildlife alive and well.
The book is a combination of two things: use of the seven deadly sins to structure the chapters and a very Richard-Dawkins-lite (and I mean very lite) version of the world. The 7 Deadly structure was rather cutesy, but it provided a tidy framework to hang the stories on. If you are completely unfamiliar with Dawkin’s Selfish Gene theory and/or you are phobic about learning science/biology, this would be a good introductory read. I must confess that I find Dawkins a bit daunting, so I can imagine that many other folk would as well (although I think I understand his basic argument and have to say that I find it very powerful). However, Riskin’s harping on “Meat Robots” (that we are all bodies driven by our DNA) got on my nerves by the book’s end.
I think this would be an excellent book for a young audience—high school, perhaps, or as supplementary reading for freshmen university students taking science courses for non-science majors. It is fun and the science presented is very straight forward (dare I say easy?). There were a couple of “strange animal” stories that I had not heard before, but most of it was recycled material for me (I was a volunteer natural history educator for 17 years and had a long repertoire of strange and/or gross stories with which to regale my audience and I’m told I was very adept at hooking 8-9 year old boys with tales of poop and vomit).
I have to agree with one of his major ideas—just because something is “natural”, i.e. occurs in nature, that doesn’t mean that it is wonderful and harmless. You can justify almost any behavior through an animal example and parasites, disease, venom, and many other things that can threaten your well-being are very natural.
After spending the whole book convincing his audience that we are part of the natural world and dependent upon it, Riskin then switches gears to convince us that we can also rise above our genetic programming for selfishness and continue the human quest for human rights and prevention of environmental catastrophe. I have to agree with that sentiment as well.