I gave a talk last week as I launched my new book Ten Million Aliens. Here’s the opening bit.
It’s not my fault. I fell into bad company and was led astray. It all began — like so many terrible mistakes in life – with a nice glass of something cold and the company of some lovely ladies. The ladies in question were Rebecca and Aurea. They run the publishing company Short Books, and we had already done plenty of good stuff together, so we were easy with each other and inclined to fling ideas about the place in a merry sort of way. And Aurea said, why not do a book about insects, and I was at once ravished with the possibilities. I was thrilled by the challenge of making a group that is antipathetic to humans into one that’s sympathetic. I was equally thrilled by the idea of doing the research, for insects are not my area of expertise. This seemed to me a wonderful voyage of discovery, and I was already off and running in my mind as I waved to the barman for another round. Almost at once I had a title: Six Legs Good. Hard to top that, I think you’ll agree.
Buuuut then I had a bit of a think, and I thought. Well, that’s not really enough, is it? That’s a bit of a cop-out, isn’t it? Because insects may be a pretty vast group, but they’re not the whole story — and whole stories are what I like to tell. Insects aren’t even a proper phylum – a phylum being the highest level of classification below kingdom. We humans are vertebrates, so we belong in the phylum of chordates — along with our fellow-mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and the group people call fish. Insects are arthropods, in the same phylum as crabs and lobsters and spiders. Within the phylum of arthropods you can find the class of insects – and buggered if I was going to write only about a single class.
Because if insects are interesting, then what’s even more interesting is the entire world of creatures we seldom think about, save when we want to kill them: the vast community of invertebrates. Just think about it: all those different phyla of inverts: how do they work? How do they fit together? So I decided to do a book about invertebrates, and this seemed to me to be a wonderful voyage of discovery, and soon it was off and running in my mind. I even had a title: Spineless. Hard to top that, I think you’ll agree.
Buuuuuut then I had a bit of think and I thought: well, that’s not really enough, is it? That’s a bit of a cop-out. Because what’s interesting is not the way that invertebrates are separate from us, it’s the way we are all linked. Besides, inverts isn’t a proper category: the world isn’t divided up into one great organisation of vertebrates and another of invertebrates. Life in the Animal Kingdom is about getting on for 30 different phyla, all of them equally unrelated: a bryozoan is no closer to a spider than it is to you and me. Life isn’t about barriers, it’s about continuities. It’s not about separation, it’s about links. Vertebrates aren’t separate from the rest of life, and we humans aren’t separate from the rest of vertebrates. We’re all in this together, animals all.
So I resolved to write a book about the entire Animal Kingdom, and I started writing at once before I could have another bit of think and start including plants and fungi and the other kingdoms within the domain of Eukaryota and before I could start worrying about the domains of Bacteria and Archea. Time for a little self-control.