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.
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.
At first blush, you might think this book is part of the ongoing craze of spiritual mindfulness books. But let me refrain from snarky comments. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud does indeed want to instill a sense of mindfulness about deep time, but one that is, pardon the pun, grounded in geology. In her opinion, most of us lack an awareness of durations of important chapters in our planet’s history and of rates of change of many natural processes. As a consequence, we fail to see just how rapidly we are altering our planet. In one of the first paragraphs she eloquently writes:
“Like inexperienced but overconfident drivers, we accelerate into landscapes and ecosystems with no sense of their long-established traffic patterns, and then react with surprise and indignation when we face the penalties for ignoring natural laws”.
And with that, she had me hooked.
If Charles Darwin were to walk into my office today and ask me: “So, what did I miss?” I think I would sit the good man down with a copy of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, telling him: “Here, this should get you up to speed”. Darwin struggled to explain how traits were being inherited from generation to generation. As New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer shows in this wide-ranging book, the story of heredity has turned out to be both diverse and wonderful, but has also been misappropriated to prop up some horrible ideologies.
Six years ago (is it already that long?) Katrina van Grouw blew me away with her gorgeously illustrated book The Unfeathered Bird, which gave a unique insight into bird anatomy. Her new book, Unnatural Selection, again features her unique combination of accessibly written text and lavish illustrations. The book celebrates the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. In this and in On the Origin of Species, Darwin frequently referred to the rapid changes that breeders could bring about in plants and animals to make evolution understandable. And yet, biologists and naturalists don’t generally hold breeders and their breeds in high regard. In that sense, Unnatural Selection also celebrates their work and knowledge.
The tropical birds-of-Paradise have fascinated generations of naturalists, from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (who risked life and limb to collect many specimens for museum holdings) to David Attenborough, who, together with Erroll Fuller, wrote Drawn From Paradise: The Discovery, Art and Natural History of the Birds of Paradise. They were at the centre of a Victorian fashion craze for bird feathers, which decimated many colourful bird families, but they were also at the heart of a far more obscure Victorian pastime: salmon fly-tying. A resurgence in interest led a young man to break into the ornithology collection of the Natural History Museum at Tring, stuff a suitcase with 299 specimens of various rare colourful bird species, and walk out again to sell their feathers.
Welcome to the story of the natural history heist of the century.