Feathers: Evolution of a Natural Miracle
by Thor Hanson
Basic Books, New York 2011
In his book Feathers: Evolution of a Natural Miracle, author Thor Hanson takes us on a journey down the rabbit hole. Though it is not a journey along a fertile ambling limestone stream or up a mountainside along the banks of a rushing mountain brook, it is nevertheless a journey that many a fly fisher (or especially fly tyer) will enjoy. I mean, who thinks about feathers more than fly tyers? This particular rabbit hole is one that was entered when the author started thinking about feathers. Where did they come from? Why did they evolve? How do they work? How do they grow? Why are people fascinated by them? These are all questions that are pondered in this book.
I call it a journey – because that’s the feeling that I got when reading it. Mr. Hanson presents the book as an unfolding exploration and with a warm and personal writing style, he takes us along for the discovery. Along the way we meet many characters – and I think this helps keep the book from being a dry exposition about feathers.
The natural starting point for a story about feathers is that famous pigeon-sized “first bird”, Archeopteryx. And so we are taken back to the discovery of and controversy surrounding that famous feathered fossil. Then we are taken deeper back in (geological)time to the more recent discovery of the feathered dinosaurs of China. All the while the story is being told by introducing us to the people behind the discoveries. Frankly, I still find the idea of feathered dinosaurs just wonderful – it makes me smile just imagining it.
The book is divided in to five main sections, Evolution, Fluff, Flight, Fancy and Function. In these sections we learn about possible mechanisms driving feather evolution, modern birds and their feathers, flight, fashion, quill pens and much more. I found it simply fascinating – and I will never look at that little brown sparrow outside of my window the same way again. And yes there is a chapter on fly tying – but it will not offer much that is new to the experienced fly tyer.
This is not a book for everyone. If you do not find natural science interesting and if you do not enjoy pondering the miracles of nature at length, then this is not for you. Also – though it does get into some technical details here and there it is not a hard-core “science” book – it stays well within the bounds of consumer level popular science writing. If you enjoy books by authors like John McPhee and David Quammen, then this is likely a book that you’ll also enjoy.
You can learn more about the author on his webpage: thorhanson.net
Disclosure: I did not receive any compensation for this review, though I was supplied with this book by the publisher.