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1 february 2011

Peter Young's Tortoise is a bit of a data dump – a cheerful, colorful book that takes the form of a lot of disconnected sentences and paragraphs full of tortoise facts.

The tortoise is a universal emblem of stability: as the anecdote goes, world mythologies tend to see the fundament of the cosmos as "turtles all the way down" (40). This dynamic is a bit curious: tortoises resemble rocks, sure, but tip them over and they're among the more helpless of Nature's beings. Upon this wobbly thing, many religions' gods have nonetheless founded their worlds.

Tortoises wouldn't have weathered 225 million years of natural selection, though, if they hadn't gotten pretty good at not tipping over. Ungainly as they may be afoot, they are the world champions of hunkering down. But there's a sense in which the tortoise's famed stability is more a metaphor for its lifespan than a direct invocation of its sense of balance. Tortoises are among the few animals that typically live longer than humans do. They are individual survivors tactically, as well as species survivors in the struggle of evolution.

One of the more intriguing photographs in Tortoise (16) shows King George VI of England (recently given new celebrity by Colin Firth) befriending a centenarian tortoise named Jonathan, on the island of St. Helena. Young's caption notes that only two of the individuals in the picture are still alive: Queen Elizabeth II, now in her mid-80s; and Jonathan, happily approaching age 180.

Giant tortoises may in fact exhibit negligible senescence. They just don't seem to grow old. Unless they get sick, or run over by a Humvee, or something, they refuse to die, and their physiologies aren't any different at age 180 than at age 80 or age 18.

Of course, the price tortoises pay for immortality is a lifestyle of utter stoicism. They munch stuff, walk around a little bit, and wait for the next century to pass. It's almost impossible not to moralize their existences. Peter Young amply documents the ways human cultures have done so, throughout our history – which history must seem just a passing fad to the tortoise.

Young, Peter. Tortoise. London: Reaktion, 2003.