WHAT ON EARTH EVOLVED?: 100 Species that Changed the World. Christopher Lloyd. Bloomsbury, $45.
Journalist Christopher Lloyd’s What on Earth Evolved?: 100 Species that Changed the World is an informative, fun-filled tour through natural and human history. The first 50 species Lloyd covers (they’re life-forms, really—he’s using the term loosely) evolved before the spread of human agriculture about 12,000 years ago. Representative viruses and bacteria make the list, along with trilobites, Archaeopteryx, stony corals, dragonflies and rats. The second 50 are species that, thanks to people, have thrived during the past dozen millennia—wheat, dogs, coffee and ticks, for instance. A brief final chapter ranks all 100 species according to their impact on evolution, each other and the environment (earthworms take first prize; humans place sixth).
Lloyd’s essays meander pleasantly through evolutionary biology, human history and trivia. For example, in chapter 7, “On Biodiversity”—which covers the mosquito, flea, tsetse fly, oak, acacia, durian, bamboo, honeybee and ant—we learn about Miriam Rothschild, the aristocratic naturalist known as “Queen of the Fleas”; the centuries-old barrier to development in Sub-Saharan Africa that is tsetse-borne sleeping sickness; the reproductive strategies and rich ecosystems of oaks; the occasional mass suicide of bamboo forests; and the taste of durian fruit, which has been compared to that of “pig-shit,” “turpentine,” “onions garnished with a gym sock” and “sweet raspberry blancmange [eaten] in the lavatory.” Later in the book, reading about the coca plant (number 96 on the list), we don’t just learn the story of cocaine, we get to see the ad in which Pope Leo XIII endorses the stuff.
Although in a few instances Lloyd garbles something (his explanation of so-called junk DNA, for example), this hard-to-put-down volume is well worth picking up.