Review: The big mess of evolution by Léo Grasset

Writer: Lucie Gourmet
Editor: Emma Last
Artist: Patrick Marenda

Léo Grasset is a French youtuber known for his channel called Dirtybiology created in 2014. After doing a master’s in biology, he decided to share his passion online. His work focuses on diverse aspects of biology, by asking out-of-the-box questions such as “How much is Nature worth?”,“How did dinosaurs have sex?”, and “Why do humans crave stories?”. As his channel’s name indicates, his aim is to encourage creative thinking and explore areas of biology which may seem unconventional. He aims to vulgarise science and make it accessible by delivering it through an appealing format. In his latest book, which can be translated as “The big mess of evolution”, he summarizes most of his YouTube content.  

The book is centred on unexpected aspects of evolution as he explains that many traits occurred independently. Multicellularity as we know it exists in multiple forms which appeared at different times. The evolution of vision is also interesting as our ancestors had an additional cone which enabled them to see UV light, but our species lost this ability. At the time of dinosaurs, mammals had to live during the night, and they had no selective pressure to see colours present only during the day. Most mammals today are consequently dichromatic, but a few primate species obtained a new cone sensitive to green. He also explains that there is great variety regarding the eye anatomy of different animals, such Anableps which is often referred to as four-eyed fish. They only have two eyes, but these are split horizontally into two sections which allows them to have aerial and aquatic vision simultaneously, thereby protecting them from any predator.  Other examples include the giant guitarfish Rhynchobatus djiddensis, which can retract its eyes into its head to protect them, and the mantis shrimp, which has 16 cones enabling it to see more colours than we can imagine.  

The strength of this book lies in the diversity of fun facts it provides. I discovered that female kangaroos have three vaginas, naked mole rats have almost no cancer incidence, and the Australian government released the myxoma virus to control the population of rabbits. Also, the subjects he tackles are unusual and are often topics we tend to avoid talking about such as where the female orgasm comes from. It encourages the reader to open their mind and be more curious without fearing science. Moreover, the writing style is easy to follow and  illustrations accompany the text, encouraging readers to continue and helping them to visualise difficult concepts. I loved the underlying message the book has: do not be afraid to ask yourself questions even if they seem weird, as there is probably a scientific answer. The book makes biology accessible to everyone and is an extraordinary model of science popularization.

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