Skip to main content

Hope for Animals and Their World – Jane Goodall ****

Jane Goodall is one of those figures in science (or, at least, natural history) who is near mythical. I have to confess to a tendency to confuse her with Diane Fossey (not to be confused with Bob Fosse), so I was slightly surprised that she was English and lives in Bournemouth. However what is certainly not mythical is her enthusiasm for animals which in this book (co-written with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson) she manages to put across in spades.
The idea is that we hear so much doom and gloom about animals being driven to extinction by climate change and human intervention, and this is a chance to hear the good news – the stories of animals we have managed to bring back from the brink. This works very well. It is heartening to hear. Also fascinating to see the in-fighting between those conservationists who believe animals should always be left in their natural habit and those who believe captive breeding is often essential. Goodall comes down on the side of the captive breeders, and it really does look like the other camp is putting philosophy ahead of the survival of animals.
The writing style is very light and personal. Some of it is almost as if it’s written by a very well-read ten-year-old. I don’t mean that to sound condescending – Goodall is certainly child-like in her joy in living creatures, but not childish. It’s just that this isn’t polished science writing, it’s more like reading a personal journal. I used to love Gerald Durrell’s books as a child, and I was reminded of that same personal enthusiasm and involvement.
I only had two small problems with this book. One was the sheer length of it. It’s 380 pages without the index, and to be honest, while there are obviously big differences between stories of black robins and of condors, there are just so many ‘bird being saved’ stories you can read without them getting a bit samey. I think there’s a bit of ‘famous author syndrome’ here – the editor didn’t dare suggest cutting down. I think the book would have been better with about half the case stories and a bit more depth to the science.
The other problem is that there was a touch of hypocrisy in the way we are encouraged not to destroy the world, yet Jane Goodall clearly flies thousands of miles each year, visiting many countries. This really isn’t justifiable, given the impact of that travel on the environment. (There’s even a section on the back that seems to encourage people to travel the world to see these creatures. No! Don’t! Just read about them, please.)
Despite those concerns, this is a really interesting book. I would have liked to see something about how we should make the decisions on which species to concentrate on. We see a lot of time, effort and money being spent on specific species – there’s no way we could afford to do this for (say) every insect in danger. How do we make those decisions? Even so it is good to know that some species have been hauled back from the brink – and good to see Goodall’s enthusiasm, shining through every page.
Paperback:  
Also hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…