Built by Animals

It is to the general discredit and shame of humanity that most of us know far more about the eating disorders of pop stars than we know about the complicated suite of manipulations employed by mountain gorillas in preparing a favorite type of thorny vegetation for consumption: “?a total of 256 recognizable handling techniques?” The resulting “bundles of thistles,” opines naturalist Mike Hansell in his new book, Built by Animals, is much more complicated than, say, a paper airplane, but more easily overlooked. “If gorillas made paper aeroplanes rather than food bundles, then every museum would have one and every schoolchild would know about them.” In Hansell’s enthralling survey — and exploration into the evolution — of the various structures created by the non-human inhabitants of our planet (and their tool usage as well), this kind of lively, fanciful, vivid talk alternates quite frequently with sturdy, lucid, astonishing blueprints of animal, insect, and even amoeboid behavior. (Behavior plus materials equal structure, is Hansell’s formula.) Hansell’s tour de force might be his nearly 15-page disquisition on the construction and physics of a spider’s orb web. Often directly addressing the reader, and encouraging amateur scientists to conduct their own investigations, Hansell remains rigorously rational and empirical, while not neglecting higher-level speculative questions regarding non-human consciousness — all without falling into anthropomorphism or the mindless gosh-wowery of certain nature documentaries. It is to the eternal credit and pride of humanity that scientists like Mike Hansell strive with insight and ingenuity to catalogue the wonders of the natural world and to convey their findings in such enthusiastic fashion to the rest of us blinkered anthropocentrics. –