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Book Review: How the Zebra Got Its Stripes

By (May 9, 2017) One Comment

How the Zebra Got Its Stripes:

Darwinian Stories Told Through Evolutionary Biology

by Léo Grasset

translated from the French by Barbara Mellor

Pegasus Books, 2017

If you know only a little about 28-year-old French “punk scientist par excellence” Léo Grasset, tousle-headed host of the extremely popular YouTube channel “Dirty Biology” and author of the blog Dans les testicules de Darwin, you’re going to look at his new book How the Zebra Got Its Stripes: Darwinian Stories Told Through Evolutionary Biology – all of 150 pages long while holding its breath – and naturally conclude that his English-language translator, Barbara Mellor, deserves the Orde national de la Légion d’honneur. Taking one look at Grasset’s author photo on the English cover of his book, seeing his fashionable scruff, louche lips, and adorable, vaguely vacant eyes, factoring in the frenetic jump-cuts and non-stop cartoon-bombardment of his videos (which are about various high school-level quickie biology subjects in the Bill Nye fashion but seem mostly devoted to Grasset’s rubbery facial expressions), any prospective reader could be forgiven for imagining that poor Barbara Mellor was handed a disheveled pile of crudely-scrawled pages, coffee-stained and shedding cigarette ashes, and tasked with making some sense out of it all for Grasset’s English-language debut. One can imagine the author-translator sessions, with Mellor earnestly asking “Now Léo, what did you mean by this?” and Grasset ignoring her while he plays with his hair and constantly checks his phone.

But no, it turns out the boy wonder is the genuine article, with academic degrees and a core of quick professionalism underneath his mousse and his tattered T-shirts. It’s true that his channel’s spastic visual style can drive just about any viewing adult to despairing thoughts about what non-stop video gaming is doing to the concentration of the 21st century’s young people, but the videos themselves are not only scientifically sound but also, after acclimatization, genuinely inviting. There are worse ways to get young people excited about science.

All of which goes a lot further in recommending a YouTube series than it does recommending a book. How the Zebra Got Its Stripes is composed of 20 chapters, most no longer than three or four pages in length, each taking up some video-ready idea – how dung beetles navigate their world, how termites air-condition their mounds, how antelopes use their tushies for sexual signalling – and wrapping it in fairly simple generalities, as in the chapter-bit titled “The Female Hyena’s Penis”:

Evolution is a complicated phenomenon: it makes organs and appendages disappear, creates new ones and repurposes existing ones for different functions. In the face of these constant changes, it is sometimes difficult for biologists to understand the functions of the shapes and appearances of the creatures they study: they are all too ready to put forward multiple hypotheses, some of which are contradictory. Perhaps researchers are looking for simple explanations, whereas the exuberant creativity of evolution requires something far more complex.

This drive-by style of biological and evolutionary instruction – imagine a book written by the late Stephen Jay Gould when he was roughly 14 years old – will be frustrating to Grasset’s adult readers for all the right reasons. The topics themselves are often interesting, and even at such glancing length, it’s obvious that our author knows his facts and could be an engaging teacher if he’d switch to decaf. The book’s most intriguing piece, titled “Elephant Dictatorship vs Buffalo Democracy,” is a perfect case in point: it raises all sorts of intriguing questions about the reliability of communal decision-making – and then flits off to the next bite-sized bit.

“When people ask me what I actually did for my research, I tend to simplify,” Grasset writes:

I sometimes say that I spent my time driving vehicles at zebras, which always produces an enjoyable response. Or I say I was trying to understand their behaviour, which has the advantage of being closer to the popular idea of what naturalists are supposed to do in the wild. The real reason was weirder, and would have required more explanation: the truth was I was trying to discover whether zebras’ stripes advertised something about their personalities.

Grasset doesn’t seem to include the possibility that the reaction he was getting wasn’t a desire on his listeners’ part for simple, entertaining answers but rather an expression of their polite disbelief that he’s done any formal “research” of any kind. After all, he looks like he’s 18 and sounds like he’s far more familiar with all-night raves in the 18th arrondissement than he is with doctoral committees. The cure for such mis-aligned impressions would be a serious, thoughtful book, rather than a collection of YouTube scripts. His viewers won’t notice the difference, but if he’s going to have readers, they’re going to have to wait.