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.
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.
Endothermy, colloquially known as warm-bloodedness, was a major breakthrough in the history of life on Earth. It gave rise to the active lifestyle of birds and mammals. But how did it evolve? Research into this question has been ongoing for decades, though in the eyes of evolutionary physiologist Barry Gordon Lovegrove, the field has stagnated amidst competing single-cause hypotheses that all try to find that one killer explanation. In his wide-ranging Fires of Life, he brings together many disparate strands of research and gives an overview of our thinking on the evolution of endothermy in mammals and birds. Providing food for thought for students in this field, it also is a great overview for the general reader that stands out for its superbly accessible writing.
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.
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.
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 seed of this book, if you will forgive me the pun, lay in an unfortunate collision between a football and the author’s scrotum. This led former neurobiologist Liam Drew to write a piece for Slate about the mammalian testicles and their precarious positioning in the males of this group. Before long, with the birth of his first daughter, he started wondering about lactation and all the other features and oddities that make us mammals. The resulting I, Mammal is a witty, irreverent overview of mammalian biology and evolution that is sure to entertain.
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.
If you are interested in dinosaurs, the last two years have seen a slew of great books published, and there is more in the pipeline. The latest I am reviewing here is The Dinosaurs Rediscovered from the well-known British Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology Michael J. Benton. With a huge number of possible topics you could write about, and an already saturated book market, Benton has set himself a very specific aim: to show how the science of palaeobiology has moved from a descriptive, speculative scientific discipline, to a hard, testable, rigorous one. In other words, given that palaeontologists nowadays regularly make some pretty amazing and precise claims about creatures long extinct, how, exactly, do they know that?
When I picked up this book and saw the subtitle, I couldn’t help but think: “What?? Sloths, maligned?” Just look at them! How is that face not adorable? Where the sloth’s timeline is concerned, I have been swept up in what is only a recent widespread appreciation of sloths. Clearly, this wasn’t always the case. Why else name an animal after a cardinal sin…