evolution

Book review – American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus

If you visited the London Natural History Museum sometime before 2015 you will have been greeted by the skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur: a plaster cast of Diplodocus affectionately nicknamed Dippy (see also Dippy: The Tale of a Museum Icon). Dippy has left the building but is not the only such cast in existence. Historian Ilja Nieuwland here traces the little-known history of the philanthropic campaign that saw Scottish-born business magnate Andrew Carnegie donate plaster casts to museums around the world. Drawing on a wealth of archival material, he examines Carnegie’s reasons and the response of the recipients and the general audience, adding a valuable and surprisingly interesting chapter to the history of palaeontology as a discipline.

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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 – How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories

To understand something, you need to know its history. Right?
– That sounds reasonable.
Wrong“, says author and professor of philosophy Alex Rosenberg.
Feeling especially well informed after reading a book of popular history on the best-seller list?
– Well, since you are asking…
Don’t. Narrative history is always, always wrong.
– Oh…

That is the rather provocative premise that Rosenberg pushes with How History Gets Things Wrong. Given that I review both pop-science books and books charting the history of certain academic disciplines, will this be the book that brings on a bout of existentialist doubt, and cause me to abandon reviewing books? Is this book the proverbial blog killer??

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Book review – Slime: How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us

In Algae We Trust. That might just as well have been the subtitle of this book. In Slime (published in the UK as Bloom, but I read the US version), author Ruth Kassinger writes of the many fundamental, often eye-opening roles that algae play in our ecosystems. But she also travels around the world to talk to farmers, scientists, and inventors. From food to plastics to fuel, entrepreneurs are discovering that these little green powerhouses hold immense biotechnological potential.

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Book review – The Rise of Reptiles: 320 Million Years of Evolution

Reptiles are an incredibly diverse animal group with a long and complex evolutionary history, conquering land, skies, and seas multiple times. Continued discoveries of both living reptiles and fossil material are adding more details and layers to the story of their evolution. A review of how they all relate to each other has been long overdue, and geologist and curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Hans-Dieter Sues here takes on that challenge. The resulting The Rise of Reptiles is a technical and heavily illustrated reference work for the serious zoologist and palaeontologist.

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Book review – The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching & the Cognitive Revolution

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.

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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 – Fires of Life: Endothermy in Birds and Mammals

Endothermy, colloquially known as warm-bloodedness, was a major breakthrough in the history of life on Earth. It gave rise to the active lifestyle of birds and mammals. But how did it evolve? Research into this question has been ongoing for decades, though in the eyes of evolutionary physiologist Barry Gordon Lovegrove, the field has stagnated amidst competing single-cause hypotheses that all try to find that one killer explanation. In his wide-ranging Fires of Life, he brings together many disparate strands of research and gives an overview of our thinking on the evolution of endothermy in mammals and birds. Providing food for thought for students in this field, it also is a great overview for the general reader that stands out for its superbly accessible writing.

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Book review – Tracking the Highland Tiger: In Search of Scottish Wildcats

The Scottish wildcat is one of Britain’s most threatened wild mammals. Legend and lore tell of a fierce animal capable of taking down a man if cornered. Once common, only a small remnant population survives in the Highlands of Scotland and now faces the unlikely threat of genetic dilution by hybridisation. Tracking the Highland Tiger sees nature writer Marianne Taylor go in search of this mysterious cat. But it quickly becomes apparent that the book’s title can be interpreted on several levels.

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