Charles Darwin

Book review – Rage Inside The Machine: The Prejudice of Algorithms, and How to Stop the Internet Making Bigots of Us All

There is an amusing and slightly acerbic acronym that has stuck with me from my days working at a computer helpdesk for an international oil firm: PICNIC. Short for “problem in chair, not in computer”, my colleagues used it as code whenever an employee rocked up at our helpdesk with a complaint or problem that was due to human clumsiness rather than malfunctioning hardware. “Did you check that the printer was plugged into the power socket?”

Nevertheless, says Artificial Intelligence (AI) researcher Robert Elliott Smith, our blind faith in computers and the algorithms that run them is misguided. Based on his 30 years experience working with AI, the aptly titled Rage Inside the Machine takes the reader on a historical tour of computing to show how today’s technology is both less amoral and more prejudiced than we give it credit for.

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Book review – Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean

The Southern Ocean, that vast body of water that flows unhindered around Antarctica, has to be one of the most forbidding oceans on our planet. Its latitudes are referred to by increasingly unnerving names the gale-force winds that have terrorised mariners since they first set sail here – the roaring forties, the furious fifties, the screaming sixties. Its waters are so cold that they are actually below freezing in places, with only their salinity preventing them from freezing solid (fish here have evolved antifreeze proteins!) As a consequence of these extreme conditions, this region has long remained unexplored. But, as historian Joy McCann shows, explore it we did. Brace yourself for a gripping piece of environmental history, marked by heroism as much as hubris, and curiosity as much as cruelty.

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Book review – Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are

Science has brought us many advances and has deepened our understanding of the world around us, pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance. But as it has given, so it has taken. It has revealed a vast stage whose age is measured in incomprehensible epochs of Deep Time and whose dimensions stretch away into the frigid depths of an uncaring cosmos. Leaving us bereft of meaning and purpose, science has driven home how utterly insignificant we, the denizens of that Pale Blue Dot, ultimately are. Personally, I find this perspective deeply humbling and I know many scientists feel likewise, but I also realise we live in a bubble of our own.

The notion that we are unique, special, or – in the eyes of many still – God’s chosen children, persists. Luckily for us all, evolutionary biologist David P. Barash is here to take down our “species-wide narcissism” a peg or two (or three). But far from a self-congratulatory circle-jerk, Through a Glass Brightly is an erudite, life-affirming, and sometimes riotously amusing look at ourselves.

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Book review – Rates of Evolution: A Quantitative Synthesis

The question of the tempo of evolution cuts right to the heart of evolutionary theory. Emeritus professor in evolutionary biology (and a list of other disciplines) Philip D. Gingerich here takes an empirical stab at quantifying how fast evolution happens, something which has not been done very often. The resulting Rates of Evolution is a technical monograph for an academic audience that contains thought-provoking ideas.

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Book review – Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet

Thomas Robert Malthus, a man so praised and vilified that his name has been immortalised in the noun “Malthusianism”. Many people will have heard of him in the context of overpopulation, but how many of you know the title of his famous book? Robert J. Mayhew is a Professor of Historical Geography and Intellectual History and with Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet he makes the case that Malthus’s book is a good example of the unread classic. Deeply researched, this is a scholarly book for the patient reader that charts Malthus’s life and, especially, his intellectual legacy. As Mayhew shows, Malthus remains as relevant as ever, though he continues to be misinterpreted in manifold ways.

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Book review – Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Teach Us about Ourselves

Do animals experience joy, grief, or shame? Most people will be quick to attribute all sorts of emotions to pets and other animals. But many biologists remain uncomfortable with this, well, touchy-feely subject. As scientists, we are trained to be objective, cool, and detached when making observations. Anthropomorphism – the attribution of human traits to animals – has traditionally been a big no-no. But the tide is turning, and well-known Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal is here to help it along. Mama’s Last Hug is a smart, opinionated, and insightful book arguing we have long overestimated humans and underestimated animals.

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Book review – Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society

In popular discourse, the theory of evolution has become a victim of its own success, reduced to sound-bites such as “survival of the fittest”. Biologists will of course quickly point out that this is an oversimplification, though philosopher Daniel S. Milo takes things a few steps further. Good Enough is a thought-provoking critique of the dominance of adaptationist explanations. He argues that, while natural selection is important, it is not the only, possibly not even the default mechanism, in evolution. No, Milo claims, the mediocre also survive and thrive.

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Book review – Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity

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…

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Book review – Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (Second Edition)

In a time of fake news and alternative facts, being able to separate the proverbial scientific wheat from the pseudoscientific chaff is vitally important. But seeing the wide acceptance of a lot of dubious ideas, critical thinking does not come easily. So, how, then, do you tell science from bunk? Updating his 2010 book Nonsense on Stilts, evolutionary biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci once again attacks this problem from many sides. Going far beyond cheap potshots at pseudoscience, I found a book that takes an equally serious look at the more insidious phenomena of think tanks and postmodernism, with a healthy side-serving of history of science. The result is a readable introspection on what science is and how it is done.

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Book review – I, Mammal: The Story of What Makes Us Mammals

The seed of this book, if you will forgive me the pun, lay in an unfortunate collision between a football and the author’s scrotum. This led former neurobiologist Liam Drew to write a piece for Slate about the mammalian testicles and their precarious positioning in the males of this group. Before long, with the birth of his first daughter, he started wondering about lactation and all the other features and oddities that make us mammals. The resulting I, Mammal is a witty, irreverent overview of mammalian biology and evolution that is sure to entertain.

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