Tortoise; Ant; Cockroach; Crow, Peter Young et al

A curious compendium of animal passions
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The Independent Culture

The randy male tortoise, writes Peter Young, "will pursue females, knocking against them to put them off their stride and snapping at their legs to slow them down". Hence some have celebrated the penis-headed animal as a symbol of perseverance, although the Chinese regard it as a cuckold and the Amazonian Indians believe it represents a vagina.

Young's Tortoise is one of a bold and fascinating series from Reaktion that explores the cultural history of animals (with a little basic biology). The others are Ant by Charlotte Sleigh; Cockroach by Marion Copeland, and Crow by Boria Sax. All are full of gorgeous graphics. All reveal the varied - and contradictory - meanings animals have acquired in different times and places. And all run the occasional risk of over-hyping their subject, as if changing attitudes to the tortoise or cockroach were among the motors of human history.

Young tells us about the tortoise in Aesop's fables and in Cold War cartoons, about tortoise rustlers and even the tortoise required to preserve Frank Skinner's modesty on stage. He pays tribute to their role in Darwin's thinking and quotes a great description of thirsty Galapagos islanders killing tortoises so they could drink the "very slightly bitter" contents of their bladders. Yet the book never really becomes more than a compendium of tortoise-related facts.

Marion Copeland's Cockroach, by contrast, has a strong (if implausible) central thesis. She has much to say about "monster bug" films and the derogatory use of cockroach imagery to refer to Jews, Latinos or Tutsis. But then she cites a novel where a housewife comes to realise that insect lives are "full of beauty and meaning". It is only Westerners, we are told, who are disgusted by cockroaches, since we lack the "earth-centredness" of pre-colonial peoples. Instead, we must learn to view them as our evolutionary elders, even as "heroes of ecofeminism".

Boria Sax's Crow takes a broadly chronological approach, with an intriguing digression on scarecrows. There are strong themes in the way different cultures have thought about crows (and ravens): both ill-omened scavengers on battlefield and among the most playful of birds. High culture, typified by Poe and Ted Hughes, usually stressed the baleful aspect. But American minstrel shows featured the exuberant, if deeply racist, character of Jim Crow, who "personified the amoral, happy-go-lucky slave". Sax ranges across history, but then focuses on current concerns, arguing that crows are "among the very few elements of an urban landscape that appear truly wild".

Even more impressive is Charlotte Sleigh's Ant, which makes clear how moralised interpretations of ant society have supported "Victorian platitudes, socialist utopias and Nazi eugenics". Ant imagery has featured in debates about colonialism, slavery and immigration. The anthill has been seen as an "idealised informational system", where individuals "talk" through pheromones. Much of this is illuminating about contemporary concerns; and all these books give a strong sense of the depth and complexity of the emotions we invest in animals.