Extremes fascinate us: the biggest, the fastest, the oldest, the tallest. Books and TV-programmes regularly scratch our itch for records, whether it is feats of engineering or biological extremes, and many sporting events revolve around humans attempting to set new records. One glance at the cover of Matthew D. LaPlante’s book Superlative and you might think that this is yet another book offering lots of gee-whiz factoids. You would also be wrong. Instead, this is an amusing and fascinating book that digs just that much deeper into the biology behind extremes, and why studying them is so worthwhile.
Most people will at least be mildly familiar with the story of how the structure of DNA was discovered. Francis Crick and James D. Watson are household names in this story as they went on to win a Nobel Prize. But can you name the third person to share it with them? Most people will also have heard of Rosalind Franklin, but as Gareth Williams shows, so many other people were relevant to this story. Watson and Crick only put the finishing cherry on the cake. Unravelling the Double Helix covers the preceding 85 years of breakthroughs, blind alleys, near-misses, and “beautifully executed bellyflops” by some of the greatest scientists of their time.
Back in 2014, evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner blew my mind. His book Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle gave fascinating answers to the question of where evolutionary innovations come from. I will say more about it below, but in short, there are many ways to solve a problem. But, as Life Finds a Way shows, not all solutions are equally good. To evolve from a suboptimal solution to a superior one usually involves several steps through intermediary solutions that are even worse, something that natural selection acts against. So how does evolution overcome such obstacles? And what does the answer have to do with human creativity? Can we apply these ideas further afield in education or economics? And is this book going to be as good as his last one? So many questions…
When I picked up The Tales Teeth Tell, the first thing I thought was: “Another book on fossil teeth?” After reviewing Ungar’s Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins in 2017 I was worried this might be more of the same. Was I ever wrong! Professor in human evolutionary biology Tanya M. Smith here shows there is a lot more to say about human teeth and their evolution.
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.