Our fundamental weakness as a species is that we wield enormous power through our collective knowledge, yet we lack the wisdom to apply it constructively.
Two flaws in our perception as "civilised" human beings allow us to accentuate this weakness without being aware of the implications. The first is our loss of a sense of wonder about the world, and the second is a mental block about our true place in the world. Our ability to manipulate our surroundings has cocooned us from the fact that we are simply another species trying to make a living, and that we are a part of, and not apart from, the environment. This enables us to despoil our surroundings and exploit them for short-term and ephemeral gain and to believe that, whatever mess we make, we can fix it with further applications of our technology.
Martin Wells uses a gentle and characteristically English combination of understatement and perceptive observation to open our eyes to the living world of the oceans through a series of engaging essays. As a biologist of considerable reputation, he has the depth of knowledge and the insight to ensure the accuracy of his observations and give authority to his deductions.
There is no obvious sequence to the essays. The tale of the lugworm's internal clocks is sandwiched between the diving capabilities of sperm whales and the lifestyle of basking sharks. The luminescence of the sea is considered between the merits of drinking seawater (and urine) and the intelligence of dolphins. This does not detract from the impact of the book. Its intention is to surprise, to involve and to engage the curiosity of the reader. It succeeds.
The individual essays are often circuitous and follow the imaginatively linked chain of consequence employed by a raconteur rather than the logical sequence associated with the scientific approach. Wells entices his readers, and his relaxed but perceptive style conveys information that is sometimes complex and often surprising in a way that registers in the mind and stirs the imagination.
The title essay is a good case in point. Here, he begins with the mystery of the almost indestructible ability of the soft-bodied limpet to find its way back home. Eliminating all options based on navigational skills, he explains that the limpet follows its own ineradicable slime trail using its sense of smell (or taste). He suggests that a facility for measurement and navigation is confined to animals like us that, in contrast to the limpet, have joints. This articulation leads to the manipulation of objects and, for us, of the environment itself. He finishes with a typical sting in the tail: "We think that our sort of animal is more successful than the others, which are forever cut off from the possibility of such clever inventions. Yet we are both here in our millions and only one of us is bashing the ozone layer. Reflect on this the next time you see a limpet."
This is not a book to be read at one sitting. Rather, it is a collection of treats to be savoured. I warmly recommend this book to all those who relish the unusual and enjoy being enlightened. You may even rekindle that sense of wonder, and learn to appreciate the animals that inhabit seven-tenths of our planet.
Michael Whitfield is honorary visiting professor of marine science, University of Plymouth.
Civilisation and the Limpet
Author - Martin Wells
ISBN - 0 7382 017 4X
Publisher - Perseus
Price - £8.95
Pages - 209