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.
Given that I consider overpopulation to be the mother of all problems and, unfortunately, the elephant in the room that few wish to address, this book immediately drew my attention. Empty planet? Global population decline? Those are not words you often hear when the subject turns to future demographic trends. And yet, these two Canadian authors, Darrell Bricker the CEO of social and opinion research firm Ipsos Public Affairs and John Ibbitson a journalist for Globe and Mail, contend exactly this.
“It is worse, much worse, thank you think”. With these ominous words, David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor at New York magazine, starts his no-holds-barred story of climate catastrophe. Pulling together worst-case scenario predictions, he is hell-bent on scaring the living daylight out of his readers by sketching the manifold crises that loom in our near future if we let climate change develop unchecked. He proves a poetic agitator and I admire his outspokenness – I don’t think he is alarmist, but simply saying what many scientist are silently thinking. Whether this divisive approach is helpful is another question, and one for which he has been criticised. It is a price Wallace-Wells is willing to pay, because he thinks most people are not scared enough.
Food and food production have become incredibly divisive topics. Industrialised agriculture exacts a heavy toll on our environment and a lot of the cheap, processed convenience food on supermarket shelves is not what you would call nutritious. But Toronto-based writer and journalist Rebecca Tucker is troubled by the response. A hazy conglomerate of “good food”, encompassing trendy phenomena such as farmers’ markets, locavorism, organic produce, and whole foods is being pushed as the only pathway to sustainable salvation. In this short book, she pulls no punches and roundly criticises the guilt-tripping, moralising, fanatical side of the foodie movement, while also exploring some alternatives. And it’s about time, because, as she shows, feeling good is not the same as doing good.
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?
When a history book leaves you reeling, you know that it has done its job properly. Climate Change and the Health of Nations is a grand synthesis of environmental history, charting the fate of civilizations and the links between climatic changes and the health of people. It is also a book that almost wasn’t.
In my recent review of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, I mentioned how the concept of heredity has become ever fuzzier the more we have learnt about how traits can be passed to the next generation. We have come from a very gene-centric period in biology, but biologists Russell Bonduriansky and Troy Day are ready to shake up the field. Neither a Lamarckian redux nor an attempt to downplay the importance of genes, this book successfully argues that the time has come to take into account non-genetic forms of heredity. Along the way, they provide a very interesting history lesson on how we got here in the first place.
American author Paul Greenberg has written two previous books about (eating) fish (American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood and Four Fish: A Journey from the Ocean to Your Plate), so he is no stranger to the rather, errr, fishy topic of omega-3 fatty acid supplements. His new book, The Omega Principle, is much more than just a critique of the supplement industry though. This engagingly written reportage digs far deeper, asking where this oil comes from, and reports on that vast segment of the global fishing industry known as the reduction industry, and a food system out of whack with our needs.
When I reviewed the book Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics, one of the reasons that was discussed as to why we should protect nature was the possibility of undiscovered pharmaceutical drugs. Seasoned ethnobotanist Robert A. Voeks shows that this so-called jungle medicine narrative has a long history. Though partially true, it equally contains parts myth, sentimentality, and nostalgia. However, if you are expecting a sceptical critique of superstitious indigenous practices – I was initially wondering whether the book would – no, this book delivers something far more interesting. Without belittling traditional knowledge, Voeks instead exposes the flaws in our interpretation and delivers a nuanced and fascinating ethnobotanical history lesson to boot.
After I recently finished Carl Zimmer’s new book She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, I noticed there was one mechanism of heredity he mentioned only ever so briefly: horizontal gene transfer. Since it does not play a large role in humans, it is understandable he left it aside. And doing it justice would have required almost another book. Luckily, science writer David Quammen is here to give us that book.