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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
Having just read Barash’s Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, it seemed logical to next read The Selfish Ape by biologist Nicholas P. Money. With the dustjacket calling the human being Homo narcissus, and the book “a refreshing response to common fantasies about the ascent of humanity“, these two clearly explore the same ideas, though one look at the cover suggests a darker tone. Money mostly takes the reader on a tour of human biology to show how we are little different from our fellow creatures, spicing up his writing with bleak observations. This one, my friend, sees through the glass darkly…
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.
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.
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.