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I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the historical debates over it, leading up to the latest thinking.

This is the broad approach Drew tends to take in most of the chapters, whether we're looking at the jaw bone (apparently the most distinctive aspect of mammals), the senses, being warm blooded (but we're not allowed to call it that), hairiness or lactation. That last item had one of the most striking statistics amongst the 'Wow!' facts Drew gives us - that one species of whale when suckling young produces about a quarter of a tonne of milk a day.

Another delightful feature that recurs through the book is the duck billed platypus. After diving into this weird and wonderful creature in some detail early on, they keep cropping as their odd position on the mammalian family tree makes them an inevitable recurring reference point. And the more you read about the platypus, the more you love it.

Only two things were less than perfect. A couple of chapters fell into the Feynman Trap by  spending too much time naming things and losing steam a little on the narrative, but these weren't too much of an issue. The other problem for me is a personal one. Drew uses his children and details of family life, particularly of the premature birth of his first child, far too much for me. I know some people (and publishers) love all these personal details, but I found it mildly nauseating - however, I'm sure that's just me.

Overall, this is a brilliant book, particularly if, like me, you know relatively little of biology or what makes mammals, erm, mammals. It's light enough to be enjoyable but detailed enough to satisfy the most fact-driven reader. Recommended.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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