David Wineberg
Mar 28 · 4 min read

Matthew LaPlante’s Superlative is an homage to the Guinness Book of Records, natural edition. He admits everyone loves record setters, including if not especially him. And he is a lover of things natural. As a journalist, he says he pestered his editor until he was allowed to cover the zoo. The book is a best of, featuring what animals and plants do that Man can only drool over.

LaPlante has put a lot of passion into the book. He seems to have met pretty much every animal and plant he describes, from his visits with scientists and their labs, to field trips all over the planet. It is a labor of love as much as appreciation and awe. The most interesting aspects are the whys. Why is this the loudest, the biggest, the tallest, the smallest, the fastest runner/swimmer/flier? What is its advantage? Why does this being have this ability at all?

Elephants have the secret to cancer

Elephants rank very highly in his schema. Elephants and Man share a cancer-fighting gene called p53. In Man it surrounds the mutated and mutating cancer cells, and fails to stop them. In elephants, which have 20 copies of p53, it tells the cells to die. So elephants are not cancer-prone. This commanded cell death is called apoptosis, and we see it in Man when the brain tells mitochondria to die when the energy they produce is no longer needed by aging bodies. Not a helpful option. Elephants are also emotional animals, traumatized for life by Man’s killing of their mothers in order to capture them for zoos. And true to the myth, they have phenomenal memories, which LaPlante proves.

The largest living thing is not what you think

The world’s largest tree is also its largest living thing. It’s a 107-acre Quaking Aspen in Utah. Quaking aspens spread underground, and all the shoots — what look to be a simple forest — are all attached to the same root, and are of course genetically identical. Now called Pando, the tree has 47,000 shoots. And it might be 800,000 years old (though some say “only” 80,000), making it by far the oldest living being as well. It’s a very interesting survival strategy: no flowers, no seeds, no fruit. Just root expansion. Very risky, but on planet Earth, there is no end to lifeforms and strategies.

The toughest living thing is something you never heard of

Possibly the toughest beast on Earth is the tardigrade, aka water bear. It is a millimeter and a half sort of caterpillar with eight feet. It can be frozen, boiled, dehydrated and irradiated and still come back for more. We have only begun to classify the varieties of tardigrade we see worldwide. He says they are found from the highest mountains to the deepest ocean trenches. They’re the toughest, most resilient life we know of. They not only have impressive genes, they lack the genes that cause inflammation and pain. Their genes have the potential to change our lives forever.

Appropriating genes might mean Man could travel between planets without suffering the effects of unfiltered radiation bombardment. Or even just surviving the expected new temperature ranges up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit on Earth. LaPlante teases us with the genetic uniqueness of numerous superlative performers throughout the book and what it could mean for Man.

The octopus is the first/oldest intelligent being. Able to analyze its environment, measure up other beings in the area, strategize, escape, learn and make intelligent decisions, it has just two years of life to maximize its abilities. This once shell-protected smart snail is totally unprotected and vulnerable, and must live by its wits alone. The central brain acts as a quarterback, LaPlante says, and the remote brains controlling each of the eight arms do whatever they need to do to execute, which is why they seem to be all over the place, never moving in co-ordination. This distributed hierarchy system is now being applied to co-coordinating thousands of drones at a time.

The slowest animal in the world is the three toed sloth, which burns all of a hundred calories a day — a teaspoon of peanut butter would sustain it.

There are moths that can hear up to 300khz (humans stop at about 20, dogs at 40), far above the echolocation of today’s bats that seek them out.

Of interest is LaPlante’s frustration in doing research for this book. There is hardly any. Many of the animals he profiles were the subject of no scientific studies whatsoever. On others, the research is, to be polite, thin. In the meantime, they are disappearing, and we haven’t even figured out why they are so good at what they do, or how we could benefit from them. Doesn’t seem to stop anyone.

David Wineberg

(Superlative, Matthew LaPlante, April 2019)

The Straight Dope

Reviews of books, films, music

David Wineberg

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Author, The Straight Dope, or What I learned from my first thousand nonfiction reviews. 16 Essays.

The Straight Dope

Reviews of books, films, music

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