Month: October 2017

Book review – Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past, 1830-1980

Palaeoart (not to be confused with Palaeolithic art, i.e. cave paintings) has a long and rich history of artworks that have helped us imagine the prehistoric past, from dinosaurs and mammals to cavemen. As an art genre though, it is largely ignored and looked down upon a bit, popular as these images are with children and the unwashed masses. This book aims to set the record straight and celebrate a carefully curated selection of palaeoart covering some 150 years, from the first works in the 1830s up to the 1980s. The book calls itself a two-fold time machine. Or, to paraphrase American artist Walton Ford in his preface, the book is a look back in time at what looking back in time looked like.

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Book review – Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction

How to Clone a Mammoth, Resurrection Science, Bring Back the King, and now Rise of the Necrofauna. There has been no shortage in recent years on books written for a general audience that talk about de-extinction: the controversial idea of resurrecting extinct species using recent advances in biotechnology. Futurist Alex Steffen catchily refers to them as the necrofauna mentioned in the book’s title. Rather than focusing on the technical side of things, radio broadcaster and writer Britt Wray here foremost discusses the ethical, legal and other questions this idea raises. And once you start thinking about it in earnest, it raises many thorny issues. No wonder it has been a controversial issue.

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Book review – Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins

“Show me your teeth and I will tell you who you are” Cuvier is reported to have said. That, in short, is the brief of this book. Drawing on a range of disciplines – such as archaeology, palaeoclimatology, materials science, primatology, anthropology and evolutionary biology – this book weaves a compelling narrative of what our teeth, and those of our ancestors, can tell us about our past diets, and how we came to be the species we are today. Why teeth? Because, as Ungar contends, teeth are special.

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Book review – Deep Thinkers: An Exploration of Intelligence in Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises

Cetacean intelligence remains a topic of intense interest, and has been the subject of several excellent books in recent years, such as Are Dolphins Really Smart?: The Mammal Behind the Myth, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, and Dolphin Communication and Cognition: Past, Present, and Future. Ivy Press typically produces entry-level pop-science books, which is by no means intended as a disparaging qualification. I have read several of above-mentioned books, and even for a biologist coming from a different discipline, these are technical works. Ivy Press’s Deep Thinkers stands out by being both accessibly written and richly illustrated, making it a perfect entry to this topic.

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Book review – Are Dolphins Really Smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth

Based on the book’s title I was expecting a myth-busting pop-science book. There is some of that, but this book is foremost a very thorough and in-depth literature review of decades worth of research on dolphins to give an as dispassionate and impartial analyis as possible of what the science is, or is not, telling us about dolphin intelligence.

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Book review – The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins

Next to intelligence, another claim to fame that whales and dolphins can make is that of possessing culture. After the authors have clarified that they, too, wish to stay far from unsupported claims of higher intelligences and pseudoscientific attempts at cross-species communication, the book kicks off with definitions. Because, as with Justin Gregg’s book on dolphin intelligence, the proverbial devil is in the definition.

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Book review – Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

Was the asteroid impact that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs a one-off? Or are other mass extinctions in earth’s deep history perhaps also linked to impacts of extraterrestrial bodies? Many scientists are reluctant to accept this idea. In Cataclysms, Rampino argues that it is high time to cast off the spirit of Lyell that continues to haunt geological thinking and embrace a new era of catastrophism.

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Book review – The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions

Aaaah… the Apocalypse. Who doesn’t love Hollywood’s favourite movie trope? The spectacle, the drama, and the foreboding knowledge that – oh, spoilers – everyone dies at the end. There has been no shortage of good eschatological writing in recent years. Some books to come to mind are Erwin’s imaginatively titled Extinction, Wignall’s recent The Worst of Times, or Alvarez’s T. rex and the Crater of Doom – those pesky dinosaurs remain a popular subject. Do we really need another popular science book about mass extinctions? Given the continued developments in our understanding, and given that you get not one, not two, but all five for the price of one, I’d say yes. As far as I can tell the last comparable book was Hallam & Wignall’s 1997 Mass Extinctions and their Aftermath, published by Oxford University Press, which was a more academic treatise. So, get your bucket of popcorn ready and roll on the Apocalypse!

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Book review – Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science

“Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake, […]”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, “The Black Gate is Closed”

Even Hobbits knew about elephant-like creatures. But, not so long ago, we didn’t. This book starts off with a striking realisation. Our distant ancestors lived with mammoths, using their meat, hides and bones, possibly even overhunting them to extinction. Despite having lived side-by-side with these large, majestic creatures, somewhere along the line we forgot what they were – the details of their identity not being passed down the generations and gradually fading from our stories, our myths and legends, and, finally, from our collective memory. Even though their remains were with us through the millenia, we forgot the mammoth. In turn, their remains fueled new myths and legends, from the Greek Cyclops and Titans, to Chinese dragons, the Biblical giants, and the Siberian idea of giant burrowing moles that would die upon exposure to air. How do you reconstruct the identity of a creature for which your frame of reference is gone?

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