Most people will at least be mildly familiar with the story of how the structure of DNA was discovered. Francis Crick and James D. Watson are household names in this story as they went on to win a Nobel Prize. But can you name the third person to share it with them? Most people will also have heard of Rosalind Franklin, but as Gareth Williams shows, so many other people were relevant to this story. Watson and Crick only put the finishing cherry on the cake. Unravelling the Double Helix covers the preceding 85 years of breakthroughs, blind alleys, near-misses, and “beautifully executed bellyflops” by some of the greatest scientists of their time.
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.
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…
In the already unusual world of viruses, retroviruses stand out for being even more so. Called “retro” because they reverse the flow of genetic information from RNA to DNA, rather than the normal DNA to RNA, they have turned out to be ancient, omnipresent, and incredibly influential. They are also important as they cause diseases such as AIDS. With Discovering Retroviruses, Anna Marie Skalka delivers a book dedicated to this particular group that is as technical as it is fascinating.
Since being released on the world in 2012, the biotechnological tool CRISPR has been making headlines. Biologists used to rely on the relatively blunt tools of genetic modification, but this new tool is so precise and versatile that they now speak of gene editing instead. For people in a hurry, Nessa Carey here provides a primer on the powers and pitfalls of gene editing. Hacking the Code of Life is accessible to readers without much background in genetics, focusing more on the applications and the questions it raises than the nitty-gritty details of the tool itself.
Why, of all the species that have ever existed, have only us humans reached this unparalleled level of intelligence and social organisation? When a senior scientist such as Edward O. Wilson trains his mind on such a question, you hope to be in for a treat.
It is tempting to start this review with a nod to Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Drinking Song. But there is a dark side to our use and especially abuse of alcohol, lethal traffic accidents being just one of them. Why are we so enamoured with our booze? With The Drunken Monkey, Professor of Integrative Biology Robert Dudley puts forward the idea that it is linked to the dietary preferences of our primate ancestors who used alcohol as a cue to identify ripe fruit. Is this another evolutionary just-so story?
How did we get here? It’s a simple question, but as all parents will affirm, the simplest questions can have the most complicated answers. With Quarks to Culture, Tyler Volk, a professor in biology and environmental studies, looks at our human culture and goes all the way back to the beginning (yes, the very beginning) to ask: “Is there a pattern here?”. What follows is a book that should be taken as a spirited thought experiment.
DNA recovered from archaeological remains, so-called ancient DNA, has caused a revolution in our understanding of human evolution (see my review of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past). In my review of The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved, I wondered what analyses of ancient DNA would reveal about the domestication of dogs from wolves. I have not had to wait long to find out. Geneticist Bryan Sykes here tells that story, and how man’s best friend subsequently radiated into today’s riot of breeds.
The problem with many history books is that they are written long after the facts, sometimes when the original protagonists are no longer alive. Historians or journalists often have no choice but to puzzle together the pieces of their story from eyewitness testimony or archival sources. Kin: How We Came to Know Our Microbe Relatives is a welcome exception to this rule. Written by emeritus microbiology professor John L. Ingraham, currently 94 years young, this book gives an intellectual history of the discipline of microbiology based on over seven decades of first-hand involvement and observation.