The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary
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From medieval bestiaries to Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings, we’ve long been enchanted by extraordinary animals, be they terrifying three-headed dogs or asps impervious to a snake charmer’s song. But bestiaries are more than just zany zoology—they are artful attempts to convey broader beliefs about human beings and the natural order. Today, we no longer fear sea monsters or banshees. But from the infamous honey badger to the giant squid, animals continue to captivate us with the things they can do and the things they cannot, what we know about them and what we don’t.
With The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson offers readers a fascinating, beautifully produced modern-day menagerie. But whereas medieval bestiaries were often based on folklore and myth, the creatures that abound in Henderson’s book—from the axolotl to the zebrafish—are, with one exception, very much with us, albeit sometimes in depleted numbers. The Book of Barely Imagined Beings transports readers to a world of real creatures that seem as if they should be made up—that are somehow more astonishing than anything we might have imagined. The yeti crab, for example, uses its furry claws to farm the bacteria on which it feeds. The waterbear, meanwhile, is among nature’s “extreme survivors,” able to withstand a week unprotected in outer space. These and other strange and surprising species invite readers to reflect on what we value—or fail to value—and what we might change.
A powerful combination of wit, cutting-edge natural history, and philosophical meditation, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is an infectious and inspiring celebration of the sheer ingenuity and variety of life in a time of crisis and change.
that the ensemble of sponge and symbionts contribute to the vibrancy of the ecosystem of which they are part. (Not all sponges are so generous: there are carnivorous and parasitic species.) Some barrel BARREL SPONGE A study of Leuconia, a small leuconoid sponge about 10 centimetres tall and 1 centimetre in diameter, measured water entering each of more than 80,000 intake canals at 6 cm per minute. Inside more than 2 million flagellated chambers the water slowed to 3.6 cm per hour, just one
in the eighteenth century when the taxonomic system that we still use today came into being. But, like the bestiaries, these cabinets still had the power to enchant, as their German name, Wunderkammern (‘cabinets of wonders’), attests. Today our fondness for curiosities and wonders is no less. From the Wunderkammer to the Internet is a small step, and the latter – containing virtually everything – is both the servant of science and an everyday electronic bestiary. From giant squid to two-faced
families with about two hundred member species, most of them living in the shallower parts of warmer seas. Morays tend to be similar in shape, with a EEL . . . AND OTHER MONSTERS 71 narrow fin running all the way along their backs from head to tail, but as adults the species vary greatly in size: some are shorter than your arm, a few are more than twice as long as a human is tall. They are night hunters (of small fish and invertebrates), and they have wide jaws and sharp teeth suited to
opinions, an animal which carries a stick, a philosophical animal, 120 T H E B O O K O F B A R E LY I M A G I N E D B E I N G S a deceiving animal, a story-telling animal and the only animal that likes hot chili sauce. Humans, observes the poet Brian Christian, appear to be the only animals anxious about what makes them unique. Research in recent decades has shown that many behaviours and capabilities once thought to be unique to humans – tool-use, theory of mind, culture, morality,
reasons why we are drawn to spirals. One may be that, even before science showed just how widespread they are, people intuited that they were a manifestation of forces at work in the natural world: spirals as constant forms appearing in what is always moving, approximating Carl Woese’s metaphor for life itself: ‘organisms [as] resilient patterns in a turbu- 14 0 T H E B O O K O F B A R E LY I M A G I N E D B E I N G S A Nautilus shell lent flow’. Whether or not this is the case, once you do