Rat by Jonathan Burt


Published: 2006 by Reaktion Books
My copy: Bought in paperback

Memorable quote: “Rats have some sort of impact on almost every aspect of human life and culture, from cuisine to religion, from the arts to breeding, from science to sickness. They are reviled and abominated, admired and celebrated.”

This is an interesting account of my favourite animal’s unique place in history, myth and culture. Burt describes the rat as “the shadow of the human” a metaphor that works on several levels. Most straightforwardly, as a species rats shadow us in a literal sense because they are always nearby, they are amazingly adaptable and thrive on the waste that our notoriously wasteful species leaves wherever we go. Everybody knows that old adage about never being more than a few metres from a rat. But Burt also suggests that rats are like our shadows because behaviourally they’re so similar to humankind, and that’s a truth that not everyone is comfortable with. Both rats and people are huge evolutionary success stories and a lot of the behaviours that give rats their negative reputation – excessive breeding, over-abundance, spreading disease and destroying crops – are things of which, if we’d only admit it, human beings as a species are guilty too. I found Burt’s suggestion that the stereotypical hatred of rats in popular culture comes from an unwillingness to acknowledge our similarity to them to be both persuasive and thought provoking.

Burt begins back in ancient prehistory looking at the evolution of rodents in general and rats in particular and then traces the history and mythology of the creature through to the present day. The book has full colour illustrations and reproduces a really good variety of rat imagery from old woodcuts and Hindu religious imagery (the rat is the chosen mode of conveyance for the god Ganesh) to photographs of show rats and lab specimens. There’s a whole section on the rat’s contribution to science, some of which – as a rat lover – made me feel slightly squeamish and uncomfortable but there’s no doubt that we owe a lot of our medical and scientific advances to the use of these animals and however you may feel personally about the ethics of animal testing there’s a lot that we should be grateful for to the rat as a species. My favourite section was on old superstitions regarding rats, some of which were just so funny – such as the medieval belief in using rats’ poo as a cure for baldness!

Overall this is a nice little book which takes a well balanced approach to one of the most stigmatised species. Burt doesn’t shy away from the darker sidea of rat history but at the same time he encourages us to celebrate their versatility, intelligence and survivability. The style of writing is fairly standard for this type of popular history, giving the reader breadth rather than depth. I was glad of this when it came to the sciencey bits as I don’t have that kind of brain but I have to say, given my former academic training, I did find myself getting frustrated in a few places by the number of unsupported references. When I used to mark undergraduates’ essays they would so often claim there were “many examples” of a certain thing and then go straight on to the next point, leaving a frustrated me to write “such as?” in the margin in red pen. Burt had me itching to grab a red pen in a few places. But those omissions aside, this is a fascinating read. It’s just a shame that it’s likely to be mostly rat-lovers who pick it up since I think people with a real hatred for the species would actually have a lot more to gain from it.

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