‘Venomous’ is Science Writing at its Sharpest

I’m from a farming family and I’m from the Western U.S., which means I’ve had more than one run-in with rattlesnakes. Along with ticks, they are the reason for always wearing calf-high boots, even in the summer. Growing up, the family policy was simply to shoot on sight and rid the farm of that kind of vermin. (Only three snakes have died at the hands of family members in my lifetime, thankfully.) If I hadn’t already been reconsidering that worldview over the last several years, Christie Wilcox’s Venomous would have done the trick for me.

The cover of Christie Wilcox's Venomous, featuring a delicate jellyfish that will definitely kill you if given the chance.
Absolutely do not touch that jellyfish.

In this slim nonfiction book, Wilcox, a PhD scientist and science writer, gives an overview of some of the world’s most deadly creatures whose bites or stings or skin can take down creatures much larger—and supposedly smarter—than them. From cobras to cone snails, and pufferfish to platypuses, Wilcox describes how each kind of toxin does to its victims intended and unintended alike, as well as how that services the creature on an evolutionary level. She also tells of her own fascination about these dangerous animals, and makes a real case for keeping them around. Not least in that case is the argument that by doing so, we could very well save ourselves by turning those lethal toxins into powerful medicine.

A straightforward premise, and an engaging one. Wilcox’s enthusiasm for biology is practically shouted out on every page, which quickly becomes infectious. I don’t know how my friends and family haven’t yet gotten sick of me talking about the cone snail or the Lonomia caterpillar, but it’s only a matter of time. (If you’ll indulge me: the Lonomia caterpillar’s toxic barbs kill by making the offending creature bleed out—not because they destroy the cells’ ability to clot, but because they crank up the clotting factor to a hundred, and when the platelets are all gone, the blood can’t clot anymore and the victim essentially bleeds out without a wound.) The reason I can just spout off random venom facts at, say, my mother’s birthday dinner is because Wilcox’s writing style is also very clear, even when dealing with complicated scientific concepts. Soon you, too, can pull neato stories about why water buffalo actually die after a Komodo dragon bite and how it actually has nothing to do with the lizards’ venom.

A picture from 2002's Spider-Man, showing Willem Dafoe in the "You know, I'm something of a scientist myself" meme.
Me, after I read this book.

If there is a flaw with Venomous, it is how long it took me to get to it. This was published way back in the good ol’ days of 2016. Although Wilcox is keenly aware of the impact climate change can and will likely have on the creatures that fill the pages of Venomous, I wonder what a new edition with updated information would hold about the safety of the blue-ringed octopus or the Jewel wasp or the slow loris. I wonder, too, how far the medical uses of toxins have come in the last six years. This is not the fault of Venomous, though, so much as it is the state of science writing and a rapidly changing planet. A lot of nonfiction ages more quickly than fiction, and, aside from when it notes brand-new findings from 2015, Venomous doesn’t feel dated.

Yes, I know, on the scale of human history, 2015 is still brand-new. Don’t at me.

Venomous is one of those rare works that is not only tremendously informative, but also makes you sit back and marvel at the miracle that is this world. The stars dazzle, but so do the rattlesnakes.

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