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The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy

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The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy is a must-read for science fiction writers and anyone interested in exobiology. This book delves into the evolution of animals on earth to make educated assumptions about how alien life could evolve on exoplanets under different environmental conditions and in different behavioural situations.

This book is right up my ally as I am a huge sci-fi fan, a science fiction writer, and I have a science degree in biology. Evolution and animal behaviour are two of my favourite topics in biology, and I love how this book uses real science as a basis for discussing realistic physiological and behavioural adaptations in aliens. 

Though a lot of it wasn’t new to me, I still found it enjoyable to read. I think both scientists and people with no scientific background will enjoy this book as the author has a clear way of explaining that is easy to read and keeps you interested. He uses lots of great examples from animals on earth and applies this to what we might expect in encountering aliens.

This makes you think about the reasons behind adaptations and why an alien might have blue skin or an exoskeleton, not just because they look cool, but because of the environment they live in. It also covers a lot about communication and society in animals and potential aliens. This book is mostly about zoology of animals on earth, so don’t expect it all to be about aliens. But it’s all relevant info and really interesting. 

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in life on other planets and wants a more scientific approach. For science fiction writers, this will give you a deeper understanding of animal/ alien behaviour to help you write believable aliens that fit in with the worlds you create.  For budding exobiologists and alien enthusiasts, this will give you a lot to think about in terms of alien life that could be out there in the universe and what we might expect to find one day. This is a great book to add to your shelf!
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An excellent informative book that made me learn a lot and fascinated me.
The author is an excellent storyteller and populizer of science. This is not an easy read but I found it very informative and found the theories about alien life very interesting.
There's plenty of books about alien life but it's the first I read that is based on sound scientific theories.
It's not a book you read in one afternoon but it's surely a book that will keep you turning pages.
Highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine
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Ever since we became aware of there being something beyond the confines of our world, we have been fascinated by the idea of aliens. We are compelled by these thoughts of life on other planets, and in an infinite universe, that life is almost certainly out there.

But what form will that life take?

We have no way of knowing the specifics – the universe is too vast and varied for that – but one scientist argues that what we know about our own world can give us some general ideas about the life that may exist on others.

Dr. Arik Kershenbaum’s "The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens – and Ourselves" is an attempt to use what we understand about the rules of this planet and apply that understanding to the potentialities of alien life. He does so through simple extrapolation, taking into account fundamental laws of nature and spinning them forward into general theories about the life that might be found elsewhere.

Rest assured, Dr. Kershenbaum is not trying to tell you that he knows what is out there. Quite the opposite, in fact – he makes it very clear that much about alien life in unknowable. But through an exploration of what we know to be true about our own world and the life on it, he offers up some thoughts about how certain basics might well be the same.

In some ways, it boils down to Darwin: the idea that natural selection – evolution – would almost certainly apply to the development of life in other places. He argues that if you accept evolution as a reality here on Earth, then you must accept that it would be the path to life elsewhere as well. And if you accept that, then we have a certain very basic idea of how life might develop on other worlds.

As for the nature of that life, well … we don’t know. The building blocks of life that kickstart that process of natural selection could be very different than the ones that we understand. Those specific details are beyond our ken, a fact that Kershenbaum happily acknowledges.

However, he also recognizes some underlying truths that almost certainly must apply to alien life as completely as they do to our own.

For instance, movement. While the makeup of the medium through which we move might be different, the physical states of those media are the same throughout the universe. Gas, liquid, solid – all of them fluid to varying degrees. It seems safe to posit that parallel evolution would arrive at similar methods for animals to make their way from place to place through whichever fluid in which they live. Of course, when you take in the possibility that these aliens might not have the same A/B symmetry that most Earth animals do, then who knows?

And communication. What senses will we share with alien creatures? Will they operate with some combination of the five senses with which we are familiar? Or will their communication take other forms entirely? The argument would seem to be in favor of methods similar to our own – natural selection again – but the truth is that wildly different environments might bring wild divergence to the table. Still, even that wild divergence seems likely to carry some common ground with that with which we are familiar.

Kershenbaum continues down this path throughout “The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy,” relying on his own depth of knowledge with regard to the nature of animal life here and finding ways that it likely will apply more universally. It’s not a treatise on the specifics of what alien animals will be, but rather the generalities of the qualities physics and evolutionary biology indicate they could well share with us. Obviously, we don’t KNOW – we’ve yet to get the keys to the Tralfamadorian Zoo, alas – but Kershenbaum puts a lot of work into determining plausibility.

The book strikes a fine balance, going into enough depth with the science to engage intellectually while never forgetting the fundamental fun that comes with this sort of speculation (the Douglas Adams allusion of the title is undoubtedly intentional). Dr. Kershenbaum gives the impression of a scientist and academic who has managed to maintain his sense of wonder, making him an ideal creator for this sort of work. He takes his flights of fancy, to be sure – and a work like this needs those flights – but even when he sails into the clouds, his feet remain firmly planted upon a foundation of sound scientific thought. Again, it’s all guesswork, but it would be difficult to find a more educated guesser than Kershenbaum.

“The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy” is a pop science delight, a book unafraid to have fun with its premise even as it refuses to lower its expectations of its audience. Obviously, Arik Kershenbaum doesn’t know what alien animals will look like or how they will behave – no one does – but this is as thoughtful and engaging a set of hypotheses you’re likely to find on the subject.
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Great book if you are looking to challenge your world view and look around with fresh perspective and newfound awe!
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Usually, when one thinks about “universal laws”, the first disciplines that come to mind are mathematics and physics. Pi, or the law of gravity, for instance. But in The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves, Arik Kershenbaum makes the case for “universal laws of biology.” And then further argues that said laws, which we can formulate based on our experiences and observations here on Earth, can be extrapolated to consideration of just what sort of alien life we may encounter out there in the vast reaches of the universe. And methodical and logical as Kershenbaum is in making his case, he never loses touch with the sheer wonder at its core, making for an utterly enjoyable and absorbing read.

At the center of Kershenbaum’s case is the idea that “the first and most important law is that complex life evolves by natural selection … not just the only mechanism we know for creating complexity out of simplicity … [but]an inevitable mechanism.” After explaining how natural selection works and why it is not dependent on DNA, RNA, an earthly habitat, or any of the other elements of “life as we know it, he gives a brief overview of aspects such as convergent evolution, kin selection, and reproduction. Then, still in introductory mode, he delves into the definition of “animal”:  how we categorize living things as animals or not, how we respond to them in their different categories, and what it would take for us to place aliens in one category or another. After these more general chapters, he devotes a single chapter each to a specific behavior (his interest is not in what aliens may look like but in how they might act): movement, communication, intelligence, sociality, information, and language. Finally, he also tackles the question of artificial life created by aliens.

Within each chapter, Kershenbaum answers the question of why animals (and thus aliens) perform such “inevitable” behaviors and how natural selection drives those behaviors down various paths, some of which are more likely than others. While he uses earth creatures as the specific examples, having no other choice obviously, he always lays out clearly and thoroughly why the rules governing said behaviors are Earth-agnostic, would apply to any life anywhere, though the form of the behavior might differ. For example, in the section on movement, he explains how the laws of physics, which he points out are assumed to be the same on every planet, constrain the types of movement allowed, then runs through the various types we see on Earth, depending on the setting (a fluid setting like water or air or a setting at the junction of a solid and a fluid (think the ground, like us). In a fascinating aside, he explains just why we don’t see “an animal floating through the air under a sack of gas . . . feeding on atmospheric plankton … [like] a sky-whale.”  But then, just as you’re starting to get depressed at the creature’s non-existence, he details just what sort of setting such a creature could live in and why: “a denser atmosphere on a gas giant like Jupiter, or on a smaller planet where gravity is weaker.

In the segment on communication, after a general discussion of how it would take place through different “sensory channels [or] modalities” he again offers up a number of examples from the animal kingdom —sound, vision,  smell, touch, and even electrical fields. He adds as well that while some animals have a magnetic perception, the fact that they don’t use it for direct communication doesn’t rule it out as an alien modality (the same goes for radio waves, he notes). For each modality, he carefully lays out the advantages and disadvantages and then also, for our imagined aliens, explains how their habitat conditions might lead them to have evolved one or another of the modes.  For instance, after describing why electric communication on our planet is “either impractical (on land) or unnecessary (where water is clear enough to use other senses,” he points out that on a planet “where the oceans are completely dark … [such as] Titan and Enceladus” it’s quite possible, perhaps even likely, that electrical communication would evolve as a common mode of communication. 

Kershenbaum follows a similar pattern in the other chapters. A general definition and overview, such as of intelligence or cooperation, an evolution-based rationalization for its existence, an absolutely captivating tour through its diverse expressions  on Earth (crows that use and make tools, a parrot that can do math, dolphins who coordinate their actions and recognize helpmates years after last contact with them), and a based-in-logic speculation on how and why that same behavior would exist in any aliens we meet.

All of this is laid out before the reader in smooth, always clear, easy-to-follow prose  with a consistent sense of the curious personality that lies behind it. Kershenbaum simplifies concepts but doesn’t dumb them down to the point of insipidness.  While he notes that “Many academics will be deeply distressed at my cavalier approach,” leaving out the complex math at the core of game theory or kin selection for instance, he’s fine in taking that hit, believing that “even if we omit the mathematical fundamentals of why evolution works the way it does, the conclusions I’ve drawn about the nature of alien life will not be harmed.”

It certainly doesn’t feel as if he’s done any harm to the various topics he covers in his simplifying of them. Honestly, if Kershenbaum told me he was planning on expanding each individual chapter into its own book, I’d happily order them all.  I’d also say he does himself a disservice in describing his conclusions as being about the “nature of alien life,” as one of my favorite aspects of this book is just how much it illuminates the nature of life on our planets, animal life, yes, but also our own human lives. Which is why this book, as one famous fictional alien would absolutely say about it, is absolutely and endlessly “fascinating.”
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I've always been fascinated by what form alien life would take, and whether it would be intelligent in the same way as us.  It's part of the reason SF & F are my favourite genres--they open up the possibilities of what might be out there.

This book covers so much of this while being well written & researched.  It would be a wonderful resource for SF & F writers who wanted to make their alien life more realistic.
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In this book, the author uses the principles of natural selection to logically deduce what the characteristics of alien life might be: how alien life might resemble life on Earth, and how it might differ. I enjoyed those insights—they seemed sensible, enlightening, and persuasive. 

The book kind of fell apart for me at the end, when the author got into a philosophical discussion of whether intelligent extraterrestrial life should be considered "human." That seemed fairly pointless. The term "human" refers to our species, or more broadly, our genus. It's kind of like arguing about whether the term "dog" should refer only to Canis familiaris, or to all animal companions of intelligent species who join with them in cooperative hunting.

At some point—most likely decades or centuries from now—we may be forced to confront the ethics of how to interact with intelligent alien life forms. For now, I think we'd be better off exploring the ethics of how we treat nonhuman earthly creatures that demonstrate self-awareness: apes, dolphins, and elephants, for example. The author touched on that question, but didn't seem to make a persuasive argument one way or another. That seemed to me a lost opportunity. It's a much more pressing question, especially given the endangered status of our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom. I care a lot more about chimps and gorillas than I do about hypothetical intelligent beings living light years away. 

Ultimately, this book is a thought experiment that invites us to think more logically and critically about the role of life in the universe. I hope it inspires people to think more logically and compassionately about life on our own planet as well. While it's important for us to explore other bodies in our solar system for evidence of life, it's even more critical for us to protect the species here at home, in all their diverse beauty. I hope readers go away from the book with that message in mind. 

Thanks, NetGalley, for the ARC I received. This is my honest and voluntary review.
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The author explores the many and varied ways life can take shape, grow, evolve and change in environments very different to the earth using the fundamental laws of nature. The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy is a very well-written book. The author is a Cambridge zoologist, Dr. Arik Kershenbaum, who explains what alien life must be like: how these creatures will move, socialize, and communicate.  It's not a quick and easy read, but it's definitely an interesting one!
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A year ago I’d never even heard of Astrobiology and now I’ve read two really great books about this field. They both have similar conclusions, but differ in other significant ways, which makes clear how much we still don’t know. Most of my non-fiction library is about animals and space, so a book about animals in space seems written just for me. The author starts by analyzing all animals on Earth, including humans, and extrapolates it to how our biology would work on a different planet. Of course, no one knows for a fact but once he explains the reasoning behind his conclusions, they make sense. Since The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy needs to understand earthlings before it can focus on ETs, there’s a myriad of facts about animals that are simply fascinating. The author also explores other more non-scientific fields, such as Philosophy and Linguistics. The text is clear and easy to understand, and it’s peppered with anecdotes and pop culture that make it fun. This doesn’t mean that it’s an easy or quick read. If I got even remotely distracted, I’d lose my place and had to start the paragraph and sometimes the chapter from the beginning, but it was really worth the effort. Since I probably won’t get to meet aliens in my lifetime, I hope that at least I’ll be able to see the Yellowstone wolves that helped Kershenbaum with his research. Bonus points for thanking his dog Darwin in the acknowledgements, animals make everything better. 
I chose to read this book and all opinions in this review are my own and completely unbiased. Thank you, NetGalley/ Penguin Press!
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I was granted eARC access to The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thoughts are my own and my review is honest. 

The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy is a very well-written and entertaining work of non-fiction that explores the world of animals around us, discusses how the environment influences form and function, and deep dives into topics like purpose-based evolution. Once these things are established, this book also makes room for speculation on what alien species might be like and how we can make predications based on what we see here on Earth. 

As a former science geek kid who had graduated to the status of science geek adult, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Earth's fauna in such a richly narrative way. This didn't feel like reading an academic textbook or journal article, it felt like a book I would pick up for pleasure. I would give this book to sciency kids in their teens at the youngest, because there are high-level concepts and language in here that middle school readers are likely to struggle with, but other than that I do think anyone looking to know more about animals in any capacity would enjoy this book.

I'm also a massive science fiction nerd and I was absolutely quite influenced in my decision to pick up this book by the title. I see that Douglas Adams reference! Far too many sci-fi authors creating alien beings really do seem to forget or willfully ignore the fact that so much about the way creatures on Earth look and behave is influenced by Earth and resort to creating galaxies full of bipedal humanoid dominant species with pets and prey that resemble our own current or past quadrupedal Earthly neighbours. Not every planet that produces an intelligent species is going to have that result! That's not even considering how a species would change if it moved off-planet and lived entirely in space for many generations. I think this book would be a great resource for science fiction, screenwriters, and special effects designers everywhere, and I completely intend to revisit this book when its time to finally tackle that alien species sci-fi I've had on my own writing backburner.
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With a new rover just delivered to Mars, the question about extraterrestrial life is once again on the headlines. If we want to be prepared for finding it, we have to answer some fundamental questions - and this is exactly what is this book about.

This book is certainly on the science, not science fiction side - you won't find here detailed descriptions of little green people. The parts about potential aliens are not the most interesting - you can even consider them as a little unimaginative (everything will work as on Earth, in short), but well-argued. After all, physics, chemistry, and mathematics are universal, so their effects will be similar on every planet, depending only on the local conditions.

Much more engaging is the main core of this "Guide", which is explaining how evolution works. With a considerable amount of humor and typical British love for puns, Dr. Arik Kershenbaum describes many interesting species and mechanisms, and tries to answer such questions as "what is animal" or "what is intelligence". If you liked "Your Inner Fish" by Neil Shubin, you should like this one, too.

Thanks to the publisher, Penguin Press, and NetGalley for the advance copy of this book.
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Great debut book 

I loved this book. It is as much about ourselves and life on Earth as it is about life elsewhere. Dr Arik Kershenbaum writes with a conversational tone and some humor, as he clearly explains natural selection and why it might be applicable elsewhere in the universe. He doesn't make actual predictions about aliens and what they might look like, but still discusses how natural selection could impact alien life. This book is the debut for Dr Kershenbaum, but I hope that it is not his last. I look forward to reading more of his work.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary advance reader copy via Netgalley for review purposes.
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This book started out great, but I have some issues with it. The first four chapters are my favourite, because they explore a lot of ideas I just hadn't considered. For instance, the way in which the environment an organism lives in determines how the organism is able and likely to move and communicate.

By the time we got to animal intelligence and language is where I started to come to different conclusions than the author, which is perfectly alright, considering we're all speculating. However, Kershenbaum, as a Cambridge lecturer, is much more educated in his field than I ever hope to be and there were several things that I found odd.

First of all, while Richard Dawkins may have been a pioneer in his field back when The Selfish Gene was published in 1976, he has since discredited himself so thoroughly as a scientist with his ridiculous transphobic views about human gender that it's very hard for me to take anything he has to say seriously. Here's a Dakwins quote: “‘I would say if she wants to be called she, I am very happy to call her she. That’s a matter of courtesy. But if she wants me to say she’s a woman, when she has an XY karyotype, then as a biologist, then I would say that I would define a woman, as a biologist, as a member of the species Homo sapiens with XX karyotype.’” So I guess, according to Dawkins, intersex people with a karyotype other than XX or XY don't exist and genes are apparently the only thing that matters when it comes to determining biological sex. ANYWAY. Took me right out of the text every time his name pops up, which is very often.

Something else I found strange was his insistence that anything that doesn't serve an evolutionary purpose doesn't evolve. If that's the case, explain to me why the ability to curl our tongues is an inheritable trait while granting us absolutely no evolutionary advantage. It's stated many times in the book that evolution doesn't have agency, but there's this background flavour to the text that implies "evolution happens for a reason". Either mutations are completely random, or Lamarck wasn't 100% off the mark and the environment does play a role in which traits evolve, but you can't have your cake and eat it too. To be fair, the author gives this more nuance than I'm implying, and I feel he acknowledges it as a false dichotomy, but some of his ideas on this topic seem contradictory. I'm of the opinion that while Darwinian evolution is definitely happening, mutations may not always be completely random. This is, of course, speculation, but the notion that cells that can react to their environments are completely powerless to respond to changes seems absurd to me.

Which brings me to why his approach to Lamarckism left me completely baffled. On one hand, I'm sure that Kershenbaum understands what Lamarck meant better than I do, given his credentials, but for some reason, this got lost in translation when he went to write it down. What I understand Lamarckism to be, is the passing on of physical traits, from one generation to the next. What I understood the author was saying in the book is that Lamarckism also includes the passing on of cultural and social knowledge... which, and I may be horribly mistaken, it doesn't. So when we got to AI, everything got very confusing.

Kershenbaum seems to dismiss the entire field of epigenetics as Lamarckism because of all these blurred lines between what constitutes communication and cultural knowledge and actual inherited traits. There seems to be evidence of epigenetics playing a role in psychological traits, e. g. children of genocide survivors have different stress hormone profiles than their peers and seem predisposed to anxiety disorders at a higher rate. Whether this is something inherited or a product of upbringing is not for me to say, but it seems like an oversight on Kershenbaum's part to ignore it completely. Again, to be fair, the author makes it clear that this book is a gross oversimplification of matters, but considering the amount of time spent on Lamarckism and its implications, this merited mentioning.

Another topic left completely out of the book is asexual vs sexual reproduction. The epilogue mentions this in a joking fashion (something along the lines of "I'm sure I've disappointed the people who wanted to read about whether we can have sex with aliens"), but considering that the step between asexual and sexual reproduction was absolutely crucial in the way life evolved on this planet, and the fact that most of the competitive behaviour and expensive physical traits passed on to other generations have to do with outperforming others in order to become more sexually desirable, I don't know why the author spent so much time talking about sexual reproduction in general, but didn't talk much about the ways in which it is superior or inferior to asexual reproduction, considering genetic variability is such a big driver of adaptation. Surely, even if aliens have completely different ways of reproducing, adding variation in order to increase survival is something likely to happen in other planets.

This book is definitely worth a read, and the topic at hand is fascinating. I hope I didn't make an absolute fool of myself by misunderstanding the author.
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What might aliens look like? A question I think everyone has thought of at least once in their lives. Arik takes you through a sea of possibilities - like how might aliens communicate? Language? Intelligence? Reading this, you don’t only come to speculate life on other planets but come to further understand your own and the life we have on earth. 

I loved reading about the parallels between biology and physics too, with the field of astrobiology a fascinating burgeoning field of science. This book definitely captures all the wonders of the stars and deep questions of other life as well as being informative and just an overall, great fun read. 

This book provided a unique spin on astrobiology, veering away from the more common questions to address and discusses those that often aren’t included. Focusing on just what complex alien life may look like and the forms they may take and what they may act like based on the science and what we know from our own research and experiences on earth. It makes for a very novel book and it’s just so so interesting, I don’t think it could fail to grab your interest or attention at least once in this book. You’ll definitely come out of it learning something new! 

The author writes in such a beautifully legible and easily understandable way, where the writing just flows effortlessly. It makes it a perfect book for those who perhaps don’t read a lot of a science as well as catering for those who do- no discrimination, there’s plenty of explanations and laying the foundations in this book and really helps build the reader up to knowing a fair bit about this topic. 

I also love the name for this book. It’s so aptly named ! Overall, a great and informative read and one of the best popular science books in its field that I’ve read in a while!
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A very interesting examination of the possible configurations of life that could exist on other worlds. Using the fundamental laws of nature as a guide, the author explores the many and varied ways life can take shape, grow, evolve and change in environments very different to the earth. Although the premise is promising, the narrative sometimes slows down and the information is too dense, as if the author is trying too hard to defend the logic behind the speculation. I would have preferred a wild and outrageously unhinged account of what could exist in the known universe rather than an apologetic recap of the rules of physics and animal locomotion. But overall, the ideas are fascinating..
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