Skip to main content

Lonesome George – Henry Nicholls ****

Pinta Island in the Galapagos has a particularly famous inhabitant – the giant tortoise, Lonesome George, the only known survivor of the Pinta variant of that species. (Technically he isn’t an inhabitant, as he has been moved to a sanctuary on another part of the archipelago, but Pinta is where he came from. PS Also even more technically now George has sadly died.) George inevitably features regularly in the press, thanks to the combination of being a striking animal, a Darwinian icon and a very isolated creature, but does he warrant a whole book?
In a word, yes. Henry Nicholls cleverly makes George a central focus that he keeps returning to, but is able to use the tortoise as a springboard to examine everything from Darwin’s voyages to threats to the Galapagos from incoming, non-native wildlife, eco-tourists and the action of illegal sea cucumber fishers (who have threatened to kidnap George, or worse, in the past).
Some might find the description of the attempt to get George interested in the opposite sex from nearby islands (a lack of interest that seems largely due to lack of practice) a little too detailed, but it too is entertainingly told, bringing in some of the human characters involved along the way. It’s not all about George’s inclinations, though. As well as giving serious consideration to cloning, Nicholls looks at the possibility there might be another Pinta variant out there in the collections of giant tortoises around the world (these are long-lived beasts, and one may have been taken before their scarcity was noted), at various attempts to track down another tortoise on Pinta itself (it’s difficult to be absolutely sure something isn’t there), and at the state of the other sub-species of Galapagos giant tortoise.
There is one aspect of the story that seems underplayed in the book. The only reason George is a celebrity is that he is a one-off – the only representative of the Pinta version of the Galapagos tortoise. But he is quite similar to the tortoises on one of the other islands, and it is known that tortoises have travelled between islands in the past. Could George just be a reptilian island hopper, and not a true Pinta tortoise at all? If this were the case he would just be one of many – no more special than any of the other Galapagos tortoises, rather than the tourist attraction he is today.
There have been two tests, comparing George’s DNA with the skin samples of three tortoises killed on Pinta in 1906. One test found that George didn’t match, one found George did. Nicholls’ conclusion “On balance it looks like Lonesome George fully deserves his hard-earned celebrity status,” sounds more like wishful thinking than a scientific conclusion. When two tests come up with opposite results, you don’t pick the result you want, you do a whole series of tests, reproduced in different labs – this hasn’t been done, so George’s status has to remain in doubt. This doesn’t stop him making a good story, though.
Nicholls gives us a good balance of George himself, the natural and political history of the Galapagos and the inevitable Darwinian connections. It’s a warmly enjoyable book – a pleasure to read.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…