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.
I thought I knew of the horrors to be found on the open ocean.
I was wrong.
New York Times investigative reporter Ian Urbina has spent five years, three of which at sea, documenting the stories told here. What began as an award-winning series of articles has now been turned into a book by the same name: The Outlaw Ocean. In turns nail-biting and gut-wrenching, this brutal reportage shows the open ocean to be a dystopian place of crime and exploitation that is hiding in plain sight.
One look at the title and you might be forgiven for quoting John Cleese. But rather than asking what the Romans can do for us, this book asks what we can do for the Romans. Walter Scheidel, who is a professor of humanities as well as classics and history, and a fellow in human biology, brings together a diverse cast of scientists. Their aim? To discuss what relatively young bioscientific disciplines can add to our picture of life in Ancient Rome as revealed so far by the more mature disciplines of history and archaeology. Which disciplines might these be? Prepare yourself for several mouthfuls as this book covers palaeoclimatology, archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, palaeopathology, population genetics, and the study of ancient DNA.
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.
What does the deep ocean make you think of? An alien world right on our doorstep? The cradle of life? A global garbage dump? The lungs of the planet? Or the world’s most abused ecosystem? If I am to believe marine biologist Alex Rogers, the deep ocean is all of the above, and so much more. With three decades of research experience and scientific consultancy credits for the BBC series Blue Planet II under his belt, he knows what he is talking about and he knows how to talk about it. The Deep is an intensely captivating and urgent book that swings between wonder and horror.
The phenomenon of “shifting baselines” is, to me, one of the most powerful concepts in ecology, explaining a lot of the damage humanity has wreaked on its environment. Vanishing Fish is a career-spanning collection of previously published essays, with some new material, from the pen of fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly who coined this term in 1995. And when a man like him speaks, I listen. The book gives an eye-opening overview of the state of the world’s fisheries, and the research that revealed the institutional ignorance that partially obscures the gravity of the situation.
When I picked up The Tales Teeth Tell, the first thing I thought was: “Another book on fossil teeth?” After reviewing Ungar’s Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins in 2017 I was worried this might be more of the same. Was I ever wrong! Professor in human evolutionary biology Tanya M. Smith here shows there is a lot more to say about human teeth and their evolution.
The ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi (also written Lao Tzu) supposedly wrote that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. But as writer David Barrie shows with Incredible Journeys, before we can even take that step, every journey starts with navigation: where are you and where are you going? Animals of all stripes can make incredibly long journeys, usually without getting lost. This wonderful popular science book explores the remarkable diversity of strategies they employ to find their way.
Sea otters don’t eat algae. And yet, their diet influences the abundance of seaweed. How? Indirectly. Sea otters eating sea urchins (spiky animals in the same class as sea stars) eating kelp has become a textbook example of a trophic cascade, and Serendipity is a first-hand account by ecologist James A. Estes of how this happened. A trophic cascade refers to the indirect effects that ripple through a food web as a result of, for example, a predator consuming its prey. Simultaneously, the book is a searingly open account of how science is done, how ideas change, and how fortuitous events can suddenly send your research programme off in a whole new direction.
From Skeletor to the Danse Macabre, from Army of Darkness to ossuaries and holy relics – despite being largely hidden in life, skeletons are some of the most recognizable structures that nature has produced. Science writer Brian Switek has written a sizzling little book with Skeleton Keys* that delves into both the biological and cultural significance of human bones, showing them to be more than just a powerful reminder of death and mortality.