Suckers, teeth and fins: how the natural world affects our minds

BBC Radio 4's Natural Histories.

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Natural Histories
BBC Radio 4

A 25-part series concentrating on “how the natural world has shaped us psychologically”, made in partnership with the Natural History Museum, went into its second week with a programme on the shark (9 June, 11am). Famously, tens of millions are slaughtered every year, but why do we persist in singling them out? Why are they so difficult to like? “Their faces are so immobile, so still,” suggested the thoughtful English lecturer Richard Kerridge (who was interviewed along with the museum’s irresistibly titled curator of fish). “So lacking in the kind of features that give us meaning . . . They represent a whole principle of what life might really be like if it is merciless and ruthless and not moral or kind at all.”

Inevitably the talk turned to the film Jaws – which premiered 40 years ago this week – and we heard several well-trodden anecdotes: not least that the source-novel author Peter Benchley went to his grave regretful of giving the species a bogeyman quality, “creating some sort of a monster”. (A thrillingly concise critique of the uniquely nimble, deadpan sarcastic Jaws came from my child godson, who concluded with eye-narrowed certainty after seeing it for the first time, “It’s an action-mystery-horror-drama-comedy. I love it.” How many other films could you truly say that about? I’m waiting.)

Somebody did make the fine point that the language used to describe shark activity is exclusively that of criminality – “lurking”, “prowling”, “menacing”, “stalking”. But nothing in the programme was as bone-shuddering as this (biologically precise) description of a giant squid in a forthcoming episode (23 June). “We have the remains of one in a tank. It is very weird-looking – with eight lashing arms; two slashing tentacles growing straight out of its head; serrated suckers and a parrot’s beak that rips flesh; an eye the size of your head and a jet propulsion system; three hearts that pump blue blood; and a gullet that goes through its brain.” The Great White seems rather featureless in comparison. Merely a fish. Oh, tell us more about this Kraken, museum curator of molluscs!

The man sniffed. “Most of my work is on slugs and snails, actually. To be honest, they all feel a bit overshadowed by this whole ­giant squid thing . . .” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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