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.
Why are we, from an evolutionary standpoint, the last man standing? This question fascinates archaeologists and anthropologists, and the dominant narrative is one of humans outcompeting other hominin lineages, driving them extinct. In the process, our evolutionary cousins, such as Neanderthals, always get the short end of the stick, being clumsier, dumber, or just generally inferior to us. In a book that is both a popular summary of his work and a critique of current thinking in archaeology, evolutionary biologist Clive Finlayson aims to redress this balance. Neanderthals, he says, were a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and one unexpected line of evidence comes from the birds that lived alongside them.
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.
Historically, humans have long considered themselves special compared to the natural world around them. It shows, for example, in old depictions where humans are at or near the top of a chain of lifeforms, with only angels and gods above us. Darwin caused a tremendous ruckus by saying we were descended from primates, and evolutionary biology has since had a long history of diminishing our anthropocentric worldview. With The Book of Humans, self-professed science geek Adam Rutherford has written an entertaining exploration of human evolution, showing that, amidst the teeming multitudes of lifeforms surrounding us, we are really not that special. And yet we are.
Orcas or killer whales have been at the centre of a swirling controversy for decades. Popular attractions in aquaria, their plight there has been highlighted in recent books and documentaries, further strengthening opposition to keeping cetaceans (i.e. whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in captivity. However, as Jason M. Colby meticulously documents in this book, there is a cruel irony at play here: this very practice of captivity is what raised our environmental awareness in the first place.
It should have been a straightforward expedition. As a young career palaeontologist, Nick Pyenson found himself in the Atacama desert of Chile, tasked with mapping rock layers to establish a continuous chronology that would help dating fossils found in the area. Whale fossils, Pyenson’s speciality, are rarely found complete, which is true of most fossils. So what do you do when a colleague takes you to the construction site of a new highway and shows you not one, not several, but literally dozens of complete fossil whale skeletons? It represented a treasure trove for science, but retrieving the material before the highway constructors would move in was also a daunting, labour-intensive task that could make or break careers. I almost found myself standing next to Pyenson in the dusty clearing, the Chilean sun beating down on me as he faced this dilemma. This is just one of several immersive narratives recounted in Spying on Whales, which successfully blends travelogue and popular science.
Do you have a dog? I grew up surrounded by Newfoundlanders. Ever wondered what they are thinking? Whether they think at all? You’d be forgiven for thinking that What It’s Like to Be a Dog is another book for dog lovers and, in part, it is. But don’t let the title mislead you, this book is primarily a popular account of ongoing developments in animal neuroscience, specifically on what scanning mammal brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can tell us about our shared similarities.
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.
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 analysis as possible of what the science is, or is not, telling us about dolphin intelligence.
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.