Eric Chaline selected 50 animals that he thinks made the greatest impact on human history. The most interesting thing about this book is the manner in which he always brings the reader back to how important the animal was, even if it is as humble as a fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster). He begins each chapter by stating the scientific name, range, phylogenetic class, and size of the animal. Then there is a list of four features, which are common throughout the book: stating whether the animal is edible, used in medicine, of commercial value, and practical.
One of the most interesting choices that Chaline makes is the cow. He goes through how the cow has been used by humans for a very long time, how the cow is revered in India, how the Spanish fight bulls in the arena, and how important the cow was in the creation of the American West. The ending of the chapter is brilliant: “It would be one of the great ironies of human history if cattle were now responsible for the slow decline and ultimate destruction of human civilization through the degradation of the environment” (p. 39). He is referring to the excessive amount of methane produced by cattle, especially those grown in factory farms.
Two organisms that are fascinating – and that one would never think of as having the impact on history that they have – are the cochineal (Dactylopius coccus; p. 66) and the spiny dye-murex (Bolinus brandaris; p. 26). The cochineal is a small arthropod responsible for the brilliant red dye used on South American fabrics. The murex is a gastropod responsible for the rich purple dyes that were used by royalty. These two dye colors have definitely been very important to history.
Chaline also covers animals that were vitally important, like the seal (Phoca spp.; p. 162). Seals were a draw for explorers as they moved across North America, from the west and from the east. Seals have been used by many cultures for clothing (p. 165). Another feature of the book is that the author usually points out a conservation issue or problem faced by the animal. In this case, he brings out the problem of hunting seals for fur. This practice is often brutal and is still going on even today.
Not all of the animals are nice and useful. Chaline talks about the impact of the schistosome (Schistosome mansoni; p. 194). This small worm is responsible for a debilitating disease in humans and is difficult to deal with because it spends different parts of its life cycle in several hosts. It is good to see how practical Chaline is with his entries. He gives a simple solution to the problem of schistosomiasis in that snails can be eradicated fairly easily. He describes the enormous impact the Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis; p. 204) had on history. This is the organism that killed millions of humans during the plague.
The final animal Chaline deals with is the human (Homo sapiens; p. 210). The chapter goes through how new humans are as a species and examines some of the ancient human ancestors (p. 211). There is also a lot of good information on human prehistory, which examines things like the ancient Egyptian society and also touches on ancient peoples from several other continents. Once again, the author always brings things back to the present: “According to many futurologists, humans have already reached the point of no return in terms of climate change and the exhaustion of resources…” (p. 216). However, he says that perhaps humans cannot fix the problems we have caused and simply need to move forward. This is certainly less environmentally friendly than the rest of the book.
This book would be a nice resource for high school teachers, especially for students when they are writing papers on a particular animal. It also is just fun to read. In these days, when books are being replaced or simply ignored, a fun book like this one, with so many interesting facts, might help a student learn to enjoy reading. The reading level is certainly more than appropriate for high school students and perhaps even simple enough for fifth- or sixth-grade students.