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Superlative: The Biology of Extremes by Matthew D. LaPlante, BenBella Books, US $24.95, Pp 374, April 2019, ISBN 978-1946885944

If you think you are not interested in science, think again! If you think the only purpose of animals is to provide food to humans, think again. We very often ask questions about animals and nature that go far beyond the provision of food. If you are reading this review, you must have asked yourself questions like “Where is the world’s oldest rainforest?” or “What insect produces the most painful sting?” or “Which dinosaur had the longest tail?” In Superlative, Matthew D. LaPlante shows us how our lives depend on animals and how animals make our lives better. He shows that the world’s largest mammal can provide a cure for cancer while the fastest bird is helping us a centuries-old engineering mystery. This is not all the loudest whale may help us understand the impact of solar storms.

LaPlante reminds us that our most ancient stories, and many of our newest ones, too, are replete with tales of tremendous giants, massive dragons, and colossal sea creatures — from Pangu, the giant horned deity who created the universe in ancient Chinese myths, to the many iterations of the gargantuan ape, King Kong, in modern American cinema. He continues, for ancient human hunters, the difference between killing an average antelope, gazelle, or wildebeest and killing the biggest of any of those creatures wasn’t simply a matter of bragging rights — it was a few more days of food. As the “small-brained apemen” who were our early hominoid ancestors struggled against a harsh and unforgiving world, the hunters who took down superlative game gave themselves and their families an edge on survival. Not that bragging rights didn’t matter.

LaPlante, however, argues that the cave folks who showed they were able to take down the fastest, strongest, or deadliest creatures in their neck of the woods were the best bets for mates who wanted to survive. That is a powerful selective force. He continues, “Extinction wouldn’t just be a tragedy for the goliath. Knowing what an order of animals is capable of in the extreme helps us better understand the order as a whole. Yet from an egg and larval development to calling, mating, and spawning behaviors, and even basic information like how long it lives, there’s a lot we still don’t know about the goliath — and might never get to know.” But, without even the most basic information, like average lifespans, it is impossible to hazard a guess as to the goliath’s processes of biological aging and cellular senescence, the halt of cellular growth.

Science had ignored the superlative animals until recently. However, over the past few years, some scientists have begun to recognize the long-ignored potential of superlative organisms. LaPlante, however, argues that there has been a lot of research on the biological extremes, especially plants and animals at risk of extinction — organisms the Zoological Society of London calls “evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered,” or EDGE species. Since 2007, the society has been  sending research fellows around the world to study animals like Chinese giant salamander, which is the world’s largest amphibian; the olm, which can go no longer without eating than any other known vertebrate; and the three-toed sloth, which has the lowest known metabolic rate of any mammal in the world. These organisms are the creatures people cannot help but pay attention to. That makes them great scientific ambassadors. LaPlante writes, “And science is in dire need of ambassadors. For although it does not always seem so, the broad movement of history is toward an increasingly democratized world, where leaders must make choices based… on what they believe their constituents want.” LaPlante however argues and concludes that, in such a world, a broad lack of familiarity with something — even something objectively important — can spell its doom.

Most people think they are not interested in science, Professor Matthew D. LaPlante will prove them wrong. LaPlante takes us on a whirlwind tour of the world and history teaches us the science that concerns and interests all of us. He takes us to a world of small and big, slow and fast, creatures on whom human life depends which is why they are all superlative. Superlative will complement the theory and knowledge of evolution. It is packed with stories and anecdotes we would be interested in knowing, discussing and talking about. LaPlante is an amazingly gifted storyteller and knows how to make his readers spellbound.

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