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'Ten Million Aliens' celebrates earth's remarkable abundance of perfectly evolved animals

Flying mice, jewel-toned flatworms, giant snails, and microscopic bear-shaped invertebrates all play starring roles in nature writer Simon Barnes's engaging book.

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    Ten Million Aliens:
    A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom
    By Simon Barnes
    Atria Books
    480 pp.
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Whales sing. A certain breed of fish cleans parasites off other fish. Elephants mourn their dead, pacing back and forth and howling when their children die.

Humans are not the only animals that appreciate the aesthetic beauty of music, practice altruistic behaviors within social structures, cherish their offspring, and mourn the death of loved ones. Humans may be unique animals, but we are certainly not separate from our compatriots.

So says nature and sports writer Simon Barnes in his new book Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom. In a series of brief and striking sketches of various animals ranging from insects to jungle cats, Barnes illustrates the blinding truth that humans are animals, and that we have far more in common with the other creatures on this planet than most of us think. Barnes urges us to consider our commonalities with animals such as whales and elephants that exhibit human-like traits, but he also reminds us that all animals deserve our respect and have just as much right to live on this earth as we do.

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At first glance, Barnes’s book appears to be a series of sketches describing various animals, rather than a cohesive narrative. But in a clever trick, Barnes has crafted a book where the message lies in his apparent lack of a cohesive narrative. Barnes has organized his tale so each pithy chapter (most are only a few pages) focuses on one animal, alternating between animals from the vertebrate cycle and invertebrate cycle throughout the book.

Barnes refrains from opening his story with, say, worms and building up through reptiles and birds to jungle cats and apes and finally, humans. It’s tempting for humans, who crave narrative and labels, to view the animal kingdom this way: as a progressing story where lesser animals evolved into greater animals and eventually evolved into the greatest animal of all, humankind.  

But Barnes thoroughly debunks that notion, reminding his readers that all animals are evolved perfectly for their environments, and that even creatures such as weevils – beetles that humans view as a nuisance – are superstars of evolution because of their diversity and adaptability. Animals are supposed to survive to create descendants, not strive to emulate the creatures supposedly at the apex of the evolutionary chain.

And Barnes introduces us to some truly marvelous creatures. He shows us that the natural world is far more varied than most of us can imagine, presenting animals such as flying mice; beautiful jewel-toned flatworms; giant snails; and water bears, which are microscopic bear-shaped invertebrates that live on moss and can survive freezing or boiling.

Through his descriptions of the various creatures that populate our planet, Barnes challenges our common conceptions about certain animals. The natural world is not a morality play for humans, and there’s no good reason for humans to think that snakes are evil, that insects are inherently bad, or that animals that eat humans are acting against the rules of nature. Many of these myths are rooted in our stories and legends, and have no relationship to science. All of these animals have their place in the natural world, regardless of their relationship to humankind. Simply put, it’s not all about us.

It’s clear that Barnes is a reverent admirer of nature. He has traveled widely, and his book is rife with moments of great awe and inspiration when he comes face-to-face with various (non-human) animals: his fear and respect when he encountered crocodiles that hadn’t eaten for a year waiting for the annual wildebeest rush through the savannah; the smell of a whale’s breath; the time he made eye contact with an angry lion in Africa; his observations of the birds that swarm his backyard at home in England.

Barnes may be fascinated by these complex and perfect animals, but throughout his narrative he jabs at the doctrine of intelligent design, which posits that only a divine creator could have so perfectly crafted the specimens that dwell on planet earth. (Barnes dryly remarks at one point that nature is so beautiful that even a grown-up person could be tempted to believe in intelligent design.)

He approaches many of his topics with this dry and ribbing tone, weaving in cultural references from James Joyce to Harry Potter and poking fun at himself for his cliché reminiscences about encountering lions in the African bush.

Barnes’s tone, in conjunction with the passages in which he shows true respect for the animals he encounters, makes for an immensely readable narrative. "Ten Million Aliens" is sure to impress anyone with interest in the natural world who wants to learn more about the more obscure creatures that we share our planet with. But it is also important for all readers because of its ultimate message: We should take care not to destroy and squander the life that we share our world with, both for their sake, and for ours. 

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