Strange Survivors

Strange Survivors is a non-fiction book by Professor Oné Pagán from West Chester University, and examines the way natural selection has lead to an astonishing variety of attack and defense mechanisms in the game of life.

Strange Survivors is an example of scicomm—a book designed to communicate science in a clear and interesting manner. It’s designed for the general public and could be read by anyone from Grade 10 upwards. It’s easy reading. Professor Pagán has a light, breezy style of writing that is conversational. You get the feeling he’s chatting with you over a cup of coffee in a university cafe between lectures.

At first, I thought this book would be about the oddities of life, focusing on obscure examples that are interesting curiosities, but don’t really resonate as I’m unlikely to ever see any of them in anything outside of a book or a nature documentary. Professor Pagán, though, shows us that we’re ALL strange survivors in that, after 3.8 billion years we’ve survived. Every species on Earth has survived against the odds to reach this point in time, eclipsing every other extinct species. Even you, personally, are here against all odds. I won’t steal his thunder, but the odds of you being the child of your mother and father are stupendously low. In this way, Professor Pagán uses Strange Survivors to enrich our appreciation of the wonder of life.

Strange Survivors is a guided tour of modern biology, looking at the surprising role of physical properties like electricity in producing and sustaining life. Professor Pagán makes the point that no single molecule in your body is actually alive. They’re just molecules—of water, various salts, chains of carbon forming things like DNA, but none of them are actually alive, no more so than if you were looking at them in a petri dish under a microscope—and yet, here you are—a survivor!

Confused about quorum sensing among bacteria? Professor Pagán’s answer is, “Let’s imagine a hockey team. Their ultimate objective is to get the puck into the net. To do so…” And with that he reduces a complex subject to a sports analogy, making it easy to follow.

Enjoy milk in your coffee? Or on your cereal? So do ants, but not in the way you think. They domesticate and raise aphids in a similar manner to how we raise cattle, and they milk them for their sugary excretions. See? Us and ants—we’re both strange survivors.

Strange Survivors is technically accurate and isn’t shy with scientific terms, but never in a manner that’s intimidating or overbearing. This isn’t fiction—you have to think as you read, but the reward is an increased understanding of the astonishing variety of life on Earth and the strategies species use to survive.

The thing I enjoyed most about Strange Survivors is its desire to impart a sense of awe about the natural realm. We’re time poor in modern life, accustom to sound-bites and sensationalism, but more than ever there’s a need for books like Strange Survivors as they remind us that science is the foundation of modern society. Science isn’t some new high priesthood, carried out behind closed doors by people in white coats chanting scientific terms in a strange tongue. On the contrary, science is the pinnacle of human achievement and should be accessible to all—and Strange Survivors shows us that science is merely a means of understanding the world around us. It gives us a glimpse into the weird, wonderful and strange world of biology that we’re all a part of.

Strange Survivors is available in ebook, paperback and hardback from the end of February 2018, and can be preordered now.

Disclosure: I received an advanced copy of Strange Survivors in exchange for an honest review.


2 thoughts on “Strange Survivors

  1. “This isn’t fiction—you have to think as you read…” I kind of laughed at this because I can’t think of any fiction you’ve written that didn’t make me think.

    Thanks for sharing this, Peter. I’m going to read it as soon as I finish one of my current reads. It sounds like an overall interesting book, but the part about odds (the low odds of me being the son of my mother and father) really piqued my interest. If you don’t mind me asking, did this book influence or change anything about your views on God or spirituality?

    • We’ll I’m glad you find them engaging.

      Although Professor Pagan is a Christian, there’s no mention of religion in the book as it is written purely from a scientific perspective. The last chapter goes through some astonishing curiosities in the natural kingdom and concludes with a call to respect and study nature to properly understand the remarkable reality of life. Professor Pagan makes the point that we know more about the first second following the Big Bang than we do about the origin of life, so there’s a lot for us still to learn.

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