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?
So, quick question for you. What is life?
Sorry, that’s a trick question, for the answer to this is anything but quick. The mind-boggling complexity that is life, even something as “simple” as a bacterium, somehow arises from atoms and molecules. And yet, physics and chemistry as we currently know it seem incapable of answering how life’s complexity emerges from its constituent parts. With The Demon in the Machine, well-known physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies takes a stab at it, saying we are on the verge of a breakthrough.
The problem with many history books is that they are written long after the facts, sometimes when the original protagonists are no longer alive. Historians or journalists often have no choice but to puzzle together the pieces of their story from eyewitness testimony or archival sources. Kin: How We Came to Know Our Microbe Relatives is a welcome exception to this rule. Written by emeritus microbiology professor John L. Ingraham, currently 94 years young, this book gives an intellectual history of the discipline of microbiology based on over seven decades of first-hand involvement and observation.
Beetles do it. As do fish. And squid, sharks, jellyfish, salps, dinoflagellates, and a host of other invertebrates. Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms, is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring spectacles and has fascinated humans since time immemorial. Luminous Creatures, written by bioluminescence researcher Michel Anctil, is a chunky book that charts the history of scientific research on this phenomenon by examining the lives and achievements of many of the key players involved. Along the way, it lifts the lid on many of the wondrous details of bioluminescence.
I spy, I spy with my little eye… humans are visually oriented creatures and eyes are fascinating organs. Michael Land, an emeritus (i.e. retired) professor in neurobiology at the University of Sussex, is a world expert on eyes, having studied vision for over 50 years. Next to hundreds of papers, he co-authored the textbook Animal Eyes, which was published in a second edition in 2012, and the short primer The Eye: A Very Short Introduction. Eyes to See is his opportunity to reflect on a long career and simultaneously showcase the astonishing variety of vision, as the book’s subtitle would have it.
DNA has lodged itself in the public imagination as the “blueprint” of life and as other, often slightly deceiving, metaphors. But what happens next? How do organisms actually get anything done with the information coded in DNA? For biologists, this is standard textbook fare: DNA is copied into single-stranded RNA which is then translated, three letters at a time, into amino acids that, when strung together, make up the workhorses of the cell: proteins. The cell organ, or organelle, that does the latter part is the ribosome, which Venki Ramakrishnan introduces here in Gene Machine. He has written a riveting first-hand account of the academic race to describe its structure, and how, in the process, he bagged a shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009.
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.
If Charles Darwin were to walk into my office today and ask me: “So, what did I miss?” I think I would sit the good man down with a copy of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, telling him: “Here, this should get you up to speed”. Darwin struggled to explain how traits were being inherited from generation to generation. As New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer shows in this wide-ranging book, the story of heredity has turned out to be both diverse and wonderful, but has also been misappropriated to prop up some horrible ideologies.
Starting your book blurb by asking why gazelles have legs rather than wheels is a suitably out-there question to immediately grab a reader’s attention. A more pertinent question then; why is all life based on carbon rather than silicon? In The Equations of Life, Charles Cockell takes the reader on a giddy tour down the organisational hierarchy of life – from sociobiology to subatomic particles – to show that nature is far more predictable and understandable than it might appear at first blush. His eloquent answer to above and other why questions? “Because physics is life’s silent commander”.