Review: The Wasp That Brainwashed The Caterpillar by Matt Simon

DSCF1506As a child I was obsessed with factual books about animals, continually boring my parents with recited information about various different creatures and their unique abilities. If that book had colourful pages and beautiful illustrations, all the better! Much of what I learnt has stayed with me even now, often surprising my family still with the strange bits of knowledge I have acquired.

It’s probably easy to guess why I requested Matt Simon’s non-fiction book The Wasp That Brainwashed The Caterpillar: Evolution’s most unbelievable solutions to life’s biggest problems. With a title as strange as that, I was immediately thrown back to my youth, becoming completely enthralled by the bazaar and interesting concept. Essentially this book does what the title suggest, explaining the many crazy, and often disgusting, solutions which nature has come up with through evolution. It looks quite specifically at Darwinism (the classic theory of biological evolution; think survival of the fittest), not only detailing the strange ways so many animals have adapted, but also going some way to explain why exactly. With wasps brainwashing caterpillars, penis fighting worms, and ‘pink fairy armadillos’, this really is a book full of the weird and unique evolution of the animal kingdom.

I really enjoyed the way this book was styled. We are given seven main chapters, each dealing with a different theme or idea. For instance, the book looks at raising animals, the fight for food and the threat of being eaten, to name just a few. Within each of these chapters Matt Simon gives us a case study of specific animals, looking at how each creature has adapted through evolution. This is presented in the form of a problem the animal has faced, and the solution is has thus come up with, evolving to stay alive. I really liked how he described this as the constant push and pull within nature, this idea of an animal attacking another, and the victim then having to creature a defence to eradicate or limit the threat. ‘Evolution is the most majestic problem-solving force on the planet’ (p. x). Thinking in these terms, it’s amazing to think of nature not as a finished article, but as a battle which is constantly being fought, animals developing through natural selection for their best chance at survival. In addition to the main animal being discussed, we are also given extra side notes which relate in some manner to enrich the experience.

I think the real selling point of this novel is the glaringly honest information we are given. The author has cleverly chosen animals we may not be familiar with, animals which are not always cute and cuddly, but animals which are fascinating in the way they have adapted. He wastes no time in getting straight to the point, often giving us information which is disgusting, yet fascinating all the same. It is this tension between the two which really makes this book unique and exciting to read. In many ways it reminded me very much of the Horrible Histories books I so loved when I was a child. Instead of giving us the gory details of history, we are given the often ugly and grotesque truth of nature, which actually includes animals which crawl up other animals butts to live! Yes, you read that right! However, feat not! There are still plenty of cute animals in here! Even so, the author never adopts a mocking or degrading tone of voice. He may be telling us some weird and gross information, but he does it with clear respect and admiration for how these animals have fought for the right to pass on their genes. As the authors states, ‘The predators and prey that grace this planet are the culmination of millennia after millennia of glorious evolution’ P. x).

As well as adopting a respectful tone, the author also writes with welcoming humour. He is well aware of how bazaar some of the things in the book are, and he is more than able to see the comedic moments within them. For instance, early on in the introduction the author tells of the solution the flatworm has come up with to solve a problem. He tells us this is ‘penis fencing, obviously (coming up in the very first chapter, because I assume you’re very intrigued’ (p. ix). It’s these small, quite often dry, moments of self aware humour which really enriched the reading experience. This is not just a heavy, factual account of evolution, but an engaging and intriguing book which was clearly written by a man who is very much living in the real, and quite often cynical, world. There’s also a great little side note about his nephew’s excrement, which I am sure his nephew will thank him for in years to come!

Perhaps one of the only things I could find to criticise here was the images. We’re actually very lucky here to even have illustrations, which truly are beautifully skilled and brilliantly depicted. Yet I cannot lie; I really would have loved some coloured images, often finding the black and white drawings to become quite drab and similar.

Petty points about images aside, I really enjoyed this book. It was a quick, engaging and unique read which only increased my appreciation of the animal kingdom and how it has developed to defend itself and secure the right of passing on its genes. Reflecting on how animals have changed so much over a long period of time, I cannot help but think where the animals we are currently so familiar with will be in millions of years to come. Nature really is a weird and wonderful thing, and Matt Simon did a brilliant job of capturing this.

Publisher: Headline

Rating: 3*/5*

Disclaimer – I was very kindly sent this book in exchange for a review. I will only ever post my own honest opinions and will NOT write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.

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