Reviewed by E.B. Heath
Once again Christmas is looming expensively on the horizon, so it is a real advantage to know about the latest beautiful books on offer. Consider the Platypus by Maggie Ryan Sandford, illustrations by Rodica Prato, is definitely a candidate. Within the pages of this large dignified hardback, Sandford details, in a most accessible way, how genetic sequencing has expanded Darwin’s theory of evolution. Bizarre and brilliant creatures are detailed from Daphnia and Nematode to African Elephant and Woolly Mammoth. The text is complemented by Rodica Prato’s captivating artwork that provides accurate representations of this diverse range of animal life.
Before the evolutionary odyssey begins, Sandford defines what exactly she means by ‘animal’ and ‘theory’, and also discusses how evolution is a ‘loaded’ term. In this she writes amusingly, in fact, all her explanations are fun to read. Readers also get a brief discussion on Darwin before Sandford, re-conceptualises his ‘tree of life’ into a ‘river of life’. This framework more appropriately describes the complexity of evolution:
The weight of the information we’ve learned (and have yet to learn) from the study of genomes has become too great for a tree branch to hold. A river can always grow wider and deeper.
Part One unpacks ideas of ‘species’, ‘natural selection’ and ‘success’. From this point the real fun begins with, of course, the Duck-Billed Platypus. Over eight illustrated pages the evolutionary history of the platypus unfolds. It takes some explaining. Sandford includes a time-line illustration of its developmental history from the Palaeozoic era. A ‘fam-o-meter’ estimates the genes that humans share with the platypus. To say this makes fascinating reading would be an understatement. But then there is the mosquito. The ‘fam-o-meter’ comes in with a 60-68%, apparently: ‘Mosquitoes, the microorganisms they carry, and humans have evolved and are evolving together.’ Our very best friend, the domestic dog, is featured and described as ‘weirdo wolves with humans for a pack’. Dogs, as we know them today, split from wolves ten million years ago in a lineage that includes foxes. There are twenty-one exhibits discussed in this section including Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.
Part 2 requires multiple readings, which I will be doing for some time to come. It gets a bit personal. There are other species that have a gene in common with humans known as ‘homologs’, meaning that these genes ‘look the same because they probably came from the last common ancestor we two species shared.’ I was ok with this until I turned the page – the fruit fly! Apparently, we have a common ancestor that was hanging around 782.7 million years ago. As Sandford says, that’s a shockingly high retention rate.
Part 3: Hopeless monsters – refers to animals that possess strange adaptations so driving a new successful surge in evolution. Some examples being the chicken, the tortoise and the little brown bat. The latter holds a remarkable immune system capable of adapting to new pathogens.
Part 4: the secret to eternal life – details, among others, the extraordinary axolotl, the honeybee, and the wonderful success of the elephant in comparisons with its failed cousin the Woolly Mammoth.
This brief review cannot do justice to a book that could be described as stranger than fiction. I can only find good things to write about Sandford’s skill in providing the reader with accessible information for a difficult subject, balanced by Prato’s accurate, yet stylish illustrations, this is a most enjoyable book. Consider the Platypus is a wonderful reference book and one that would be appreciated by a wide age range of readers.
By Maggie Ryan Sandford
Illustrations by Rodica Prato
Hardback (26cm x 19cm): ISBN-978-0-31641839-3
$39.99; Pp. 272