The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy

This is the first book in a long time that I DNF – did not finish.

I was attracted to the book by its title: The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens – and Ourselves. It seemed a little whimsical. After all, how can we talk scientifically about animals on other planets when we haven’t even proved conclusively that there is, or ever was, life on Mars, let alone on any of the exoplanets we’ve discovered? I was intrigued that someone would be brave enough to give it a try. Plus, I’m a big Star Trek fan and so is the author, Arik Kershenbaum.

Kershenbaum is a zoologist at the University of Cambridge. He’s studied wolves in Yellowstone and dolphins in the Red Sea trying to learn more about how they communicate with each other.

Cover of The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy

The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy
By Arik Kershenbaum
Penguin Press, New York, 2021

The book starts off well enough. Kershenbaum’s basic idea is that by thinking carefully we can make some general statements about life that are most likely true anywhere, not just on Earth. For example, all animals anywhere will be constrained by the laws of physics. All life forms require energy. They either have to absorb it or consume it. Animals, in particular, need to find food, avoid becoming someone else’s food, and reproduce.

Evolution plays a central role here. Kershenbaum claims, rightly I think, that evolution through natural selection guides the development of all life everywhere from simple forms to more complex ones. (We’re ruling out the idea that complex life forms like us just popped into existence or were created by some even more complex being.)

As David Christian points out in Origin Story, which I reviewed here, the common thread running through the history of the Universe is the development of increasing complexity. And that occurs through evolution.

Kershenbaum says it’s impossible to predict the exact forms that animals on other planets may take – will they have fur or feathers?  — but they will likely behave in fairly predictable ways. They will move. They will eat. They will reproduce. If they band together to cooperate, they will probably develop language. If we ever encounter technologically advanced aliens, they could be remarkably similar to us because they have to accomplish the same things we do.

The problem is that after nearly a hundred pages I just lost interest. Yes we can make some abstract statements about life on Earth and elsewhere, but so what? It just didn’t seem that important. And sure, it might reveal interesting patterns about life here too, but it wasn’t enough to keep me engaged.

If you’re really interested in zoology or biology, you might enjoy The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy. But I’m setting this one aside unfinished.

Thanks for reading.

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