English sports writer and natural historian Barnes explores the diversity of animal life on the planet in his latest book, Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom.
What possessed you to take on a task of this magnitude?
What’s interesting is not what divides us but what connects us: the line that links humans with our fellow mammals, with our fellow vertebrates and with our fellow animals. We’re all in it together. It being both the book and all of life. So I had to write a book about the entire animal kingdom.
What did you learn from the three years you spent writing this book?
When I set off I worried that I would get bogged down in details about desperately uninteresting groups of animals. I discovered very quickly that there’s no such thing. Every creature I stumbled across turned out to have something wonderful about it—or something hilarious or horrifying or mind-spinningly weird. Soon, it wasn’t a matter of wondering what I might find interesting; it was a thrilling process of waiting for the wonder to strike. And strike it did, sometimes with creatures I had never heard of before, sometimes with creatures I thought I understood as well as the birds in my own garden. I adopted and adapted an old chunk of scientific wisdom and came to the conclusion that the animal kingdom is not weirder than we imagine—it’s weirder than we are capable of imagining.
There must have been many stories you were forced to omit. Is there a single species you wish you could have worked in?
Perhaps the gray whale. Earlier this year, long after the book was with my publishers, I went to Baja California and spent a week in one of the lagoons where the whales come in vast numbers to socialize, give birth, mate, and generally hang out. The San Ignacio lagoon was once a killing ground. The whalers called gray whales devil fish, because they would go for their small open boats and turn them over. So I went out into the lagoon in a small open boat, and the whales came for a chat and a bit of a cuddle. In the early days of whale tourism, some of the whales approaching boats in so friendly a manner bore harpoon scars. It seemed to me, as I sat in that boat, that there were possibilities of hope for our two species—and perhaps even for the planet we both live on.
As both a natural historian and a sports writer, what similarities do you see in these two dramatically different endeavours?
I’ve seen lion cubs doing sport, mostly wrestling and hunting. I’ve seen baboons disputing the dominance hierarchy and generally having it reinforced, which is what happens in most tennis matches. I’ve seen cobras fighting; if they went for each other with their poisonous fangs there’d be death. But they wrestled, intertwined, a sinuous version of arm wrestling. It’s a system that works out which snake is stronger, and no one gets badly hurt. Safe but meaningful combat: is there a better definition of sport?