Beware the virus. If there is one message physician and evolutionary biologist Frank Ryan is hammering home with this book, it is this. Viruses are absolutely everywhere and more numerous even than microbes. So much so that Ryan speaks of the virosphere rather than the biosphere. But more than harbingers of disease, they are also agents of evolutionary invention. Now why does that sound familiar?
It is tempting to start this review with a nod to Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Drinking Song. But there is a dark side to our use and especially abuse of alcohol, lethal traffic accidents being just one of them. Why are we so enamoured with our booze? With The Drunken Monkey, Professor of Integrative Biology Robert Dudley puts forward the idea that it is linked to the dietary preferences of our primate ancestors who used alcohol as a cue to identify ripe fruit. Is this another evolutionary just-so story?
So, quick question for you. What is life?
Sorry, that’s a trick question, for the answer to this is anything but quick. The mind-boggling complexity that is life, even something as “simple” as a bacterium, somehow arises from atoms and molecules. And yet, physics and chemistry as we currently know it seem incapable of answering how life’s complexity emerges from its constituent parts. With The Demon in the Machine, well-known physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies takes a stab at it, saying we are on the verge of a breakthrough.
The problem with many history books is that they are written long after the facts, sometimes when the original protagonists are no longer alive. Historians or journalists often have no choice but to puzzle together the pieces of their story from eyewitness testimony or archival sources. Kin: How We Came to Know Our Microbe Relatives is a welcome exception to this rule. Written by emeritus microbiology professor John L. Ingraham, currently 94 years young, this book gives an intellectual history of the discipline of microbiology based on over seven decades of first-hand involvement and observation.
The term “wildlife” tends to evoke images of apex predators, cuddly creatures, or flagship species – usually vertebrate, usually mammalian – living outdoors in the wilderness of jungles, plains, or oceans. But what about closer to home? What about in your home? Ecologist Rob Dunn has written a delightful book showing that we live amidst a veritable zoo.
When it comes to social insects, ants and bees get all the love. But, if you pardon the pun of the book’s title, termites are a bit of an underbug. While finishing up a previous writing assignment, author Lisa Margonelli got on the trail of the termite sometime in 2008 and spend the next decade obsessing over them. Tailing various scientists and sitting in on their day-to-day work, she here spins a wide-ranging tale about termites and the research they have inspired. The result is a hypnotic book that ranges well beyond this humble insect.
As one of several intellectuals who wrote about evolution before Darwin, time has not been kind to the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Reviled during his lifetime by the influential Cuvier, after his death he became best remembered, and ultimately ridiculed, for the idea that characters acquired during an organism’s lifetime are passed on to its offspring. With the rise of the modern field of epigenetics, some of his ideas are making a comeback, albeit modified and adapted for the 21st Century. Palaeontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward would even like to go so far as to restore some honour to his name and consider epigenetics a neo-Lamarckian process.
Beetles do it. As do fish. And squid, sharks, jellyfish, salps, dinoflagellates, and a host of other invertebrates. Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms, is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring spectacles and has fascinated humans since time immemorial. Luminous Creatures, written by bioluminescence researcher Michel Anctil, is a chunky book that charts the history of scientific research on this phenomenon by examining the lives and achievements of many of the key players involved. Along the way, it lifts the lid on many of the wondrous details of bioluminescence.
I recently read about the American microbiologist Carl Woese (1928-2012) and his discovery of a completely new group of single-celled organisms, the Archaea, in Quammen’s book The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. These mysterious microbes thrive under extreme environmental conditions, so I was intrigued and keen to find out more. The French microbiologist Patrick Forterre here describes these microbes, the research that led to their discovery, and the questions and answers this has thrown up. Originally published in French in 2008 as Microbes de l’Enfer, The University of Chicago Press has now made this book available in English to a wider audience.
After I recently finished Carl Zimmer’s new book She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, I noticed there was one mechanism of heredity he mentioned only ever so briefly: horizontal gene transfer. Since it does not play a large role in humans, it is understandable he left it aside. And doing it justice would have required almost another book. Luckily, science writer David Quammen is here to give us that book.