Book: Giraffe Reflections

A selection of recent books and television series.

Giraffe Reflections
Dale Peterson and Karl Ammann
University of California Press (2013) RRP $65.00

Giraffes were such strange creatures that neither the Greeks nor the Egyptians knew what to call them, a confusion that is still reflected in the animals’ scientific name – the Giraffa camelopardalis.

What to call something that sports “the varied coat of a leopard, the shape of a camel and is of size beyond measure”, as Greek historian Agatharchides described it? Why, a camel-leopard, of course.

In truth these gentle, graceful, sociable creatures have personalities with little in common with either. They lack the leopard’s ruthlessness and the camel’s cantankerous outlook on life. Like elephants they are strongly maternal and grieve for their dead.

In a series of beautifully illustrated essays, this book paints a comprehensive portrait of these astonishing creatures, looking at their biology, their behaviour and their social significance through the ages.

It is a timely book, the most comprehensive on giraffes in more than 50 years, published just as the giraffe's future is more uncertain than ever. They may not survive the century as they are displaced across their range by human expansion. It seems, if these unlikely looking animals are to survive at all, it will be in places such as Namibia (one of the few bright spots) where human population densities are lowest.

With words by Harvard Fellow Dale Peterson and 120 stunning photographs by Karl Ammann this book combines the pleasures of a lushly produced coffee table glossy with the scholarship of a more serious work. Highly recommended.

The Story of the human body
Daniel Lieberman
Allen Lane (2013) RRP $29.99

HUMANS weren’t at first designed to drink milk. Digesting the sugar of milk, lactose, requires the enzyme lactase and there was simply no need for it as catching and milking a wild aurochs - the only source around - can’t have been an attractive proposition. But after the domestication of cattle, the ability to digest milk became an advantage and so we developed the genes that helped. A similar process involved the TCF7L2 gene, which promotes secretion of insulin. With grain cultivation, diets became more carbohydrate-rich and without the gene, the sugar rush after a wheat-based meal would be a surefire route to diabetes.

Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman uses these examples to argue that human evolution is still a work in progress. That leads him to wonder how our bodies are evolving in these “paradoxical times” – the healthiest in human history but plagued increasingly by obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

He argues that our failure to think about human evolution, which explains why our bodies are as they are, is a major reason why we do a poor job at tackling these preventable diseases.

“We never evolved to make rational choices about what to eat or how to exercise in conditions of abundance and comfort.”

Lieberman suggests we can learn something from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle when it comes to diet and exercise. It all sounds very “paleo diet”, and to some degree it is, albeit less simplistic and without the spruiker’s fervour.

On another level it is an excellent attempt to make sense of the complex story of how our bodies became what they are – and where they might be heading.

David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities
Series 1, BBC DVD, RRP $29.99

David Attenborough
David Attenborough holds a narwhal’s tusk, the design of which he investigates in "A Curious Twist". – Roadshow Entertainment

In a lifetime of careful observation of the animal kingdom, David Attenborough has had plenty of time to ponder the odd and varied outcomes evolution has come up with. In this five-part series, which examines 10 animals (two per episode) with some particular quirks, he collects those thoughts in an engaging series.

Stretched to the Limit looks at the tongue of the chameleon and the giraffe’s neck.

A Curious Hoax considers the unlikely platypus and the midwife toad that carries its eggs around on its back. Episode 3, Young Wrinklies wonders whether the longevity of the bizarre naked mole rat (which COSMOS investigated in issue 53, page 18) and the elephant can be connected to their wrinkly skin.

A Curious Twist looks at the role the spirals of a snail’s shell and the narwhal’s tusks play, while zebras and butterflies are linked in Episode 5, Seeing the Pattern, which explores the reasons for stripes and colours.

Attenborough’s style is as avuncular and engaging as ever, but this series feels a little more personal than many of his works, as if we are getting a glimpse into some special thoughts he has had over the years. And what a privilege that is.

This more intimate feel may also come partly from the series being filmed in the UK, without the heroic travel involved in most Attenborough series. But it does not suffer from that, featuring a good blend of archive shots, computer graphics and new film from the richly stocked museums of Britain.

Throughout, of course, Attenborough combines the clarity of thought and communication with the almost childlike sense of wonder – a wonder in itself for an 87-year-old – that makes him such a great broadcaster.

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