Sunday, 24 April 2011
Kraken by Wendy Williams
I received this copy of Kraken through the publishers Abrams Books at NetGalley. It tells the under-rated story of squid (and octopus and cuttlefish) and how they have had a vital role to play in advancing understanding about human health and function. It also debunks some giant squid myths and contains some amazing facts about their life.
First off, I was really impressed with the writing style and accessibility of the book. I've read a lot of dry science books in my time that manage to make interesting topics dull, but this wasn't one of them. Williams writes for an interested novice, putting across all the science information in an easy to understand way but also adding interesting details about the scientists and animals themselves. This gave the book a good balance and meant that it was easy to read.
And there was no shortage of interesting trivia and facts. I didn't know much about cephalopods before reading, and was blown away by some of the information - about their blue blood, tool use, how they can bite off their own tentacles and make them light up to divert a predator, how a cuttlefish can camouflage to almost any background, how the suckers on some tentacles are more dexterous than human hands, how part of their brains are wrapped around their throats. The startling information for me was just how intelligent they are as a whole, but in a different way to humans. A cuttlefish can be trained to understand simple if..then rules e.g. if this signal comes up, go left; if a different signal comes up, go right.
Williams' agenda in writing the book did seem to be to show how intelligent they are and to argue that mammalian intelligence isn't the only kind of intelligence on the planet. The other parts of the book seemed to almost be a cry for more funding for cephalopod research by showing how useful limited research has been. I thought it was very interesting how scientists used the giant squid axon to find out about human brain function and how this could lead to treatment for diseases like Parkinson's. I agree with Williams that we should be spending more money on marine research.
If I had to find a criticism of this book, I would say that the title led me to believe there would be more about giant squid mythology/history. I wanted to read about Krakens and monstrous octopuses and ancient mythology alongside the science and there wasn't much of that, only a quick debunk of some giant squid myths.
Score: 4 out of 5