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…
Wildlife conservation and field biology are not for the faint of heart. Studying wild animals in their natural habitat brings with it long periods away from home, lack of comfort, and many logistical challenges. It calls for a certain kind of grit. But equally, it requires a persistent mindset to fight the cause of wildlife when conservation clashes with company’s bottom lines, political aspirations, and the wants and needs of an expanding world population. Even amongst this hardened bunch, few people would voluntarily venture into icy wastelands to study the animals existing at the edge of the world. Joel Berger is one of them and Extreme Conservation is his story, equal parts adventure narrative as it is a meditation on the value of wild nature.
Mammoths and sabertooth cats are but two icons of an assemblage of large animals, or megafauna, that disappeared between roughly 50,000 to 12,000 years ago. As with all mass extinctions, several explanations have been put forward, but one man and his idea take centre stage in these discussions: Paul S. Martin’s overkill hypothesis. In End of the Megafauna, palaeomammalogist Ross D.E. MacPhee carefully scrutinises this idea, weighs up the arguments for and against, and explains its enduring allure. To quote Huxley, is this another example of “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”?
I cannot deny that the first thing that came to my mind upon seeing this book was Leslie Nielsen’s slightly smutty beaver joke in Naked Gun. Shame on me, as environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb presents a serious, incisive book that shows just how important beavers and their dams are for biodiversity, ecosystem health, and hydrology. If humans are now said to be a geological force to be reckoned with, birthing the term Anthropocene, our persecution of beavers led to the loss of another geological force.
Dinosaurs. You could fill a library with the books written about them. Why write another one? Because the field is moving fast: new fossils are constantly being found, new species are being described, and new techniques allow us to ask completely new questions. Being a young career-palaeontologist at the top of your field is another good reason. And Steve Brusatte does not lack ambition. Rather than singling out any one topic, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs gives you the whole epic story, from the early beginnings right up to the abrupt end. Given the brief Brusatte has set himself he obviously doesn’t cover everything exhaustively, but he succeeds admirably in giving you a very relevant overview of where we are now.
Do you have a dog? I grew up surrounded by Newfoundlanders. Ever wondered what they are thinking? Whether they think at all? You’d be forgiven for thinking that What It’s Like to Be a Dog is another book for dog lovers and, in part, it is. But don’t let the title mislead you, this book is primarily a popular account of ongoing developments in animal neuroscience, specifically on what scanning mammal brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can tell us about our shared similarities.
An underground lair… what child didn’t daydream about it? As a child, I spent several summer holidays with friends constructing one. Granted, we didn’t really burrow, we dug a pit and put a roof back over it. Even so, if I am to believe Anthony J. Martin, I am but one in a long line of burrowing animals. With The Evolution Underground, Martin paints a surprising picture of the underrated role that burrowing has played throughout evolutionary history.
Once you have worked in the book industry for a while, you will notice that publishers like to throw around words like “provocative” and “paradigm-shifting” when promoting new books. And so it is with Evolving God, the subtitle of which promises a provocative view on the origins of religion. If you’re expecting religion-bashing as done by the likes of Richard Dawkins, look elsewhere. Though she speaks of the human religious imagination, she early on makes it clear that she herself does not wish to imply that humans make up their deities, nor does she claim that sacred beings are real in our world. This is outside of the realm of scientific inquiry and she remains agnostic on these matters. So much for being controversial.