‘The jungle can kill you in a thousand ways,” hissed Jon Voight in Anaconda. Dan Riskin is keeping count (and the count includes anacondas). The personable Discovery Channel host and accomplished evolutionary biologist – the PhD after his name comes straight out of Cornell – has devoted an entire book to inventorying the various lethal weapons – including claws, teeth, venom and straight-up viciousness – being packed by all creatures great and small. If the end results aren’t comprehensive, it’s not for lack of trying: you’d have to go back to the adventures of Hannibal Lecter to find a book with so many entertainingly gory anecdotes (even if most of the victims in this case reside further down the food chain).
Actually, if Mother Nature is Trying to Kill you evokes any pop-culture villain, it’s the serial killer played by Kevin Spacey in Se7en, whose M.O. was to pattern his murders after each of the Seven Deadly Sins. Riskin uses those same vices to structure his text, using the Bibical vices – Greed, Lust, Sloth, etc. – as chapter headings and an overall organizing principle. Riskin’s thesis is that since these signifiers of “evil” are omnipresent in the natural world, the idea of basing cultural or religious values on Nature is flawed; follow that line of reasoning far enough, and human beings begin to seem less like figures created in a Divine image than too-close-for-comfort-cousins to the cattle and the creeping things.
Lest this seem like an overly heavy concept for a book that’s clearly been written for a mainstream readership, Riskin leavens the proceedings and his own academic background with plenty of gently self-deprecating humor – the first section, which describes his battle with a botfly that burrowed into the back of his head somewhere in Belize, is disarmingly and charmingly gross – and also a rich dollop of sentimentality. “I thought getting a maggot lodged in my head was life-changing, but it turns out that’s nothing compared to having a baby,” Riskin observes in his introduction, slyly setting up a dynamic that carries through the rest of the book: the author’s slavish, unshakeable love for his baby son Sam balanced against his scholarly suspicions that it’s all just biological hard wiring. “I know that when Sam kisses me and smiles at me, it’s because his DNA is ensuring its own survival,” he writes. “We’re just a pair of meat robots.”
Meat robot though he may be, Riskin has a talent for distilling complicated scientific ideas in plain, unadorned language, and his time on television has given him a sense of the importance of narrative in imparting educational information: he frequently weaves personal stories in amidst his snapshots of the animal kingdom in conflict. Not that the non-human characters in his story don’t make for compelling protagonists – and antagonists: from voracious female spiders who consume their mates to “penis-fencing” hermaphroditic flatworms, Riskin has cast his outdoor melodramas with an eye for star-quality performers.
Occasionally, he focuses on material that’s already penetrated the popular consciousness, as in his material on Tilikum, the troubled – and allegedly – murderous killer whale profiled in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Cove. But Riskin is a responsible enough writer that he avoids overly anthropomorphizing even the most famous of his subjects. In the stories that involve creatures either mimicking or adopting recognizably human behaviors – such as capuchin monkeys cued to feud over grapes – he makes sure that the reader understands that he or she is being placed on an animalistic continuum, rather than the other way around. At times, Riskin’s technique verges on the mechanical – we know as each chapter winds up that he’s going to make some sort of touchingly double-edged observation about his feelings for his son – but it’s also no small feat for a book with dozens of interrelated vignettes to feel so entirely of a piece with itself.
Riskin succumbs to a bit of Chicken Little-ism his final chapter, which, perhaps predictably, diagnoses Pride as the most elevated, and thus most human, of the sins, and the one with the farthest reaching implications for those who practice it. Having spent an entire book persuasively arguing the case for the existence of the beast within, Riskin urges his readers to act unnaturally – to take that pride and actually apply it to a global landscape we seem hell-bent on taking from and taking for granted. It’s hard to argue with this sentiment, or its not-so-subtly embedded endorsement of evolution (which, as Riskin notes, is still unaccepted by a startling number of people in 2014) but this cri de coeur feels somehow perfunctory: a case where the cure isn’t nearly as interesting as the diagnosis. Ultimately, Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You is at its best when the writing follows through on the ominous promise of its title: in a way, it’s a testament to the power of Riskin’s anxious anthropology that only his final grace note falls flat.