Have you ever stopped to wonder what dinosaur droppings looked like? Given that we can't even be sure what dinosaurs look like (their skin doesn't survive fossilization, so we have no idea what color they were), it surprised one reader at least to know that we have fairly good stocks of dinosaur coprolites (fossilized droppings), one of the best hailing from Saskatchewan and believed to have issued from a tyrannosaur.
If you're a trivia buff this Lewin's "Merde: Excursions in Scientific, Cultural and Sociohistorical Coprology" will enable you to hold forth at parties for months to come. It is so full of curious facts that I hardly dare quote any for fear of missing even better ones. I note, however, that giraffes defecate from such a height that their waste explodes and scatters on hitting the ground, that llamas queue patiently to go in a particular part of the wind-blown landscape of South America rather than just dumping anywhere, and that bats arrange themselves in a social hierarchy so that there is no danger of your droppings landing on anyone more important than yourself.
The depth of knowledge exhibited by the author is stunning. Although a small book (barely 150 pages of text) there is hardly a spare word, and extensive background reading must have gone into it. References are not given in full in the text, but there is a bibliography and a sound index, so readers whose interest is sparked can wander into their local bookstore and ask for works, the titles of which defy belief. Has anyone, for example, ever seen a copy of "Una Vieja Historia de la Mierda" or the lively (if inaccurate) "What bird did that?"
Despite the comic factor built into such a book, it has some serious ecological interest. Stephen Jay Gould, for instance, has written on the difficulty of saving the giant panda when it needs to eat so much bamboo to stay alive, the poor nutritional value of its chosen diet meaning it has to clear a field-sized piece of land each week. The majority of this growth is returned to the soil as panda manure, which is probably just as well. And students looking for a research project might like to answer the author's question "Why does the three-toed sloth go to the trouble of climbing down from his tree and burying the result in a little hole covered with leaves, although it takes him half an hour of precious eating time to do it?" I grant that it is "nature", just as "nature" causes cats to cover their excrement, but what possible advantage is there to the sloth in doing it?
I found great amusement in the book. Having recently been to Chester, I am shocked to discover that there was a statutory fine laid down for anyone found relieving themselves in the cathedral; not that I approve of fouling sacred places, but obviously it must have happened for the city fathers to decide to penalize it. While I knew that Sir John Harington is reputed to have invented the flush toilet, I did not know that we owe the palm for inventing the lift-up toilet seat to Leonardo da Vinci. I rate that a greater boon to mankind than "La Gioconda".
I can heartily recommend Professor Lewin's little work as a splendid weekend's entertainment, and just the thing to put on the windowsill of the smallest room in the house at the convenience of sitting guests.
GRAHAM BRACK, a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.