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.
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.
Beware the virus. If there is one message physician and evolutionary biologist Frank Ryan is hammering home with this book, it is this. Viruses are absolutely everywhere and more numerous even than microbes. So much so that Ryan speaks of the virosphere rather than the biosphere. But more than harbingers of disease, they are also agents of evolutionary invention. Now why does that sound familiar?
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.
After I read and reviewed Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, I thought I knew about the changes to the story of human evolution based on studies of DNA. And given that Ancestors in Our Genome was published a few years before that book, I was curious what it could add to what I had been reading so far. As it turns out, a lot. As with my previous review, I should preface this one with the same warning that things are about to get complicated…
When I opened this book and read its sales pitch (I paraphrase: “What if I told you of a new fortune-telling device that can predict psychological traits – it’s called the DNA revolution!”) I raised my inquisitive but sceptical eyebrow somewhat. Did I just pick up another piece of pop-psychology pulp? Oh boy, was I wrong! Behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin has written an incredibly interesting book with Blueprint, explaining how rapid advances in DNA sequencing technology are opening vast new vistas on the genetics underlying psychology. And is it ever so different, and more complex, than what hyped-up newspaper headlines have tried to sell us so far.
When you think of an animal, you will most likely think of a vertebrate. Since we are animals with a backbone ourselves, it is not strange that that which is closest to us comes to mind first. But when and how did vertebrates evolve? To answer that question, Nature editor Henry Gee takes a good hard look at invertebrates, convincing the reader that they are not all equal. More than 20 years ago, Gee wrote Before the Backbone: Views on the Origin of the Vertebrates, which took a look at historical explanations for the origins of vertebrates. Which group of invertebrates is closest to us remains a topic of active research and Across the Bridge brings readers up to date with our current thinking.