evolution

Book review – Visions of Lost Worlds: The Paleoart of Jay Matternes

If you ever visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. sometime before 2015 and visited their fossil hall, you will have come face to face with a series of six large murals by palaeoartist Jay Matternes, showing different stages in the evolution of mammals. For nearly five decades, these were part of various exhibits until they were dismantled in 2014-2015. Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to visit the museum. But, luckily for me, Smithsonian Books has now published Visions of Lost Worlds, a beautifully produced love letter to Matternes’s palaeoart. Written by the museum’s Curator of Dinosauria Matthew T. Carano and director Kirk R. Johnson, in close collaboration with Matternes himself, this large-format art book offers an unparalleled look at these murals and the artistic process of making them.

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Book review – The Invertebrate Tree of Life

To outsiders, phylogenetics, the study of the evolutionary relationships between organisms, must seem like quicksand: the landscape is ever-changing and what you thought was solid ground can turn into contested and unstable territory overnight. Even so, we are getting an ever-clearer picture. In no small part this is due to new methods: the rapid technological progress in DNA sequencing has now made it both feasible and affordable to sequence whole genomes (all of a cell’s DNA) instead of selected genes for many taxa. And when you can bring multiple lines of evidence – morphological, developmental, genetic, and palaeontological – to bear on the question of evolutionary relationships, the resulting family trees become better supported and more credible. That is exactly what Gonzalo Giribet and Gregory Edgecombe, both experts in invertebrate biology and palaeontology, have done here in The Invertebrate Tree of Life – a work of dizzying scope since 96% of all known species are invertebrates. They have synthesized a truly monstrous amount of research to give an overview of our current thinking on invertebrate phylogeny, writing a new benchmark reference work for students of invertebrates.

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Book review – The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them

What is better than a good dinosaur story? How about 25 of them? Geologist and palaeontologist Donald R. Prothero returns to Columbia University Press for the third book in this format. Having covered fossils and rocks, he now serves up 25 fascinating vignettes of famous dinosaurs and the people who discovered them.

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Book review – Dance of the Dung Beetles: Their Role in Our Changing World

Having just reviewed The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, I am continuing the theme of small things running the world. Here is another overlooked insect that literally moves mountains, doing the dirty job that nobody wants to do: the dung beetle. Entomologist Marcus Byrne has teamed up with popular science writer Helen Lunn for Dance of the Dung Beetles, a captivating and charming introduction to their cultural history, their role in the history of biology as a discipline, and some really funky contemporary research.

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Book review – The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator

Ours is the latest generation to be engaged in a blood-soaked conflict that has lasted millennia. The quote “we have met the enemy, and he is us” might come to mind, but no. Rather, as E.O. Wilson once wrote: “It is the little things that run the world“. Historian Timothy C. Winegard here offers a sweeping history of major turning points in human history observed through the compound lens of the mosquito. With an estimated compound death toll of 52 billion an insect that is truly worthy of the title “destroyer of worlds”.

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Book review – The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes

Here be rabbit holes.

With that warning in mind, this book examines the question that has deprived philosophers of sleep since times immemorial: do we see the world as it truly is? Professor of Cognitive Sciences Donald D. Hoffman answers with a firm “no”. The resulting case against reality that he constructs is both speculative and thought-provoking, but I also found it a winding, confusing, and ultimately unconvincing read.

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Book review – Superlative: The Biology of Extremes

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.

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Book review – Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle

Having just reviewed Nieuwland’s American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus, historian Lukas Rieppel’s book Assembling the Dinosaur seemed like a logical choice to read next. Whereas the former focused on the plaster casts of a Diplodocus skeleton that American business tycoon Andrew Carnegie donated to museums, Rieppel takes in a far wider sweep of history, studying the role of dinosaurs in America’s Long Gilded Age – the period from roughly 1880 to the Great Depression in 1929. This scholarly work charts the entanglement of economic transformation, notably the rise of large corporations, with the rise of palaeontology and changes in size, scope, and management of museums. Readers with an interest in the history of palaeontology will be particularly well-served by this book.

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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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