Simon Lailvaux


On his book Feats of Strength: How Evolution Shapes Animal Athletic Abilities

Cover Interview of March 05, 2019

In a nutshell

This book is about the often amazing athletic abilities that animals possess. It aims to explain how and why evolution has equipped certain animals with the capacity to do things like climb waterfalls with their jaws, run across the surface of the water without sinking, or shoot water bubbles at potential prey. As strange as some of these things are, they are all explicable according to the rules of mechanics, physics, and physiology, and they happen because they help the animals that possess these strengths to survive and reproduce in the face of their specific challenges.

I suppose one feature of this book that is a bit different is the style. I read popular science books to learn cool stuff about science, and I am sometimes annoyed by the intrusion of too many personal stories and narratives into the proceedings. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, and it is very effective when done well, but it isn’t to my taste and nor is it one of my strengths. The challenge then was to make this book entertaining, fun to read, and not at all like a textbook without relying overmuch on storytelling. I think I ultimately produced something that explains the exciting and compelling science involving performance but that isn’t self-important or dry. I wouldn’t call it “moist,” because nobody likes that word, but maybe it’s “humid.” Or “sultry.” (Both of those are bad. You’re going to edit this so that nobody finds out I described my book as “humid,” right? Cool.)

I also thought it was important to point out the many things that we don’t know, or instances where we understand something only poorly. Nonscientists often view contradictory results or corrections to previous findings with suspicion. In fact, making sense of those contradictions and fixing the flaws in our understanding is how science works! Scientists are far more comfortable with uncertainty than one might suspect, and I think it’s important to note that there are certain areas and subjects that we just don’t know much about, and that’s OK. As someone almost definitely probably already said, the first step towards learning is knowing what you don’t know.

I’d recommend the reader read this book in the normal way: in public at 10am on a Wednesday whilst drinking a daiquiri and dressed as a clown. (I should probably note that it’s Mardi Gras here in New Orleans right now so my sense of “normal” might be a bit off.)