I do not know if JZ Young was a religious man, but The Life of Vertebrates has the gravitas of a sacred text. The animals and bits thereof, depicted in drawings neat as woodcuts, are esoterica. It's a textbook – albeit, Young assures us, a very personal one. As a great book should, it intrigues as much as informs. Always, it implies there are layers of meaning beneath what can be summarised and that, no matter how deeply we probe, life remains mysterious.
There is nothing like a vertebrate. Here we are, us and whales and pigs and crows; bright as buttons, inventive, fast on our feet, burning prodigious quantities of energy just to stay alive but using nothing that we do not replace: models of recyclability. Yet we vertebrates had astonishingly inauspicious beginnings. The first creatures remotely like us were superficially wormlike; a gut in a sheath of muscles; "a tube within a tube".
The bodies of those lowly ancestors were stiffened by a rod of cartilage called the notochord. Add a little calcium, when this became available in the sea, insert some joints to make it flexible again, and you have a vertebral column. Unlike ordinary worms, our ancestors breathed by taking in water through the mouth and expelling it through slits at the side of the throat – like the gills of a fish. Out of these bony arches came jaws. Much later, when the fish had grown legs and come on land, surplus bones in the lower jaw were commandeered to transmit sound – the bones of the mammalian inner ear. Yet there was nothing inevitable about this. Some of those early worms stuck themselves to the rock instead and became sea-squirts.
How can you fail to be swept away by such stuff? But this was the age of CP Snow's Two Cultures, and zoology remained a minority pursuit. A shame: if the historians and lawyers and economists who run governments and industries could only feel the sheer wonder of living creatures, they surely would not treat "biodiversity" as an abstraction, and "the environment" as real estate. The greater shame is that the era of zoology Young presents is dying too. I know modern professors of biology who cannot tell a newt from a lizard – and don't think it matters. After all, they're just variations on a theme of DNA, and DNA is of interest because it is the stuff of biotech, and biotech is lucrative.
In truth, the world is in a foul and possibly terminal mess precisely because of that kind of thinking. We need to recover humility in the face of nature – not simply "awe", Richard Dawkins's word, but reverence. When science is properly conceived and presented it does just this. None does it better than JZ's Life of Verts.
Colin Tudge's 'Consider the Birds' is published by Allen LaneReuse content