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 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.
In an earlier review, I said that botany was never my greatest love. With The Revolutionary Genius of Plants, Italian plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso does a very good job of changing my mind. In the preface, he implores readers to imagine what it is like to be a plant, unable to escape predators. How can you survive this onslaught? The answer: by becoming virtually indestructible. And the way plants do this is by having a body plan that is almost the inverse of animals. There was something so powerful about Mancuso’s writing here that he instantly drew me in.
When it comes to Ice Age fame, sabertooth cats are right up there with mammoths. And within the sabertooth cats, the best-known group is the genus Smilodon. Even if you have not heard that name, you will very likely have seen it depicted. Rather than a pop-science book, this edited collection brings together the who-is-who of sabertooth palaeontology to provide a thorough and technical overview of the current state of the field. And if I did not know any better, I would say that the research community has developed an almost unhealthy obsession with this cat’s large canine teeth.
The story of human evolution is constantly being refined with new findings and there is a glut of accessible books that cover this topic from various angles. Yet, with The Cradle of Humanity, geography professor Mark Maslin manages to provide an interesting and novel take on the subject, showing the reader how a happy combination of larger factors conspired to influence and steer our evolutionary trajectory. It could have ended up so differently…
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”.
Sure, I have been lectured about the birds and the bees, and yet I learned an awful lot more about the bees from Thor Hanson’s latest work Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees. Hanson has previously written popular works about feathers and seeds, and in Buzz he turns his attention to bees. Already this book has garnered a lot of positive press and was Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4. Most people associate bees with honey and therefore with the honeybee, Apis mellifera, but Hanson specifically wants to talk about all the other thousands of bee species, many of which are as interesting and as important, even though some of them are diminutive and hardly noticed.
It should have been a straightforward expedition. As a young career palaeontologist, Nick Pyenson found himself in the Atacama desert of Chile, tasked with mapping rock layers to establish a continuous chronology that would help dating fossils found in the area. Whale fossils, Pyenson’s specialty, are rarely found complete, which is true of most fossils. So what do you do when a colleague takes you to the construction site of a new highway and shows you not one, not several, but literally dozens of complete fossil whale skeletons? It represented a treasure trove for science, but retrieving the material before the highway constructors would move in was also a daunting, labour-intensive task that could make or break careers. I almost found myself standing next to Pyenson in the dusty clearing, the Chilean sun beating down on me as he faced this dilemma. This is just one of several immersive narratives recounted in Spying on Whales, which successfully blends travelogue and popular science.
Six years ago (is it already that long?) Katrina van Grouw blew me away with her gorgeously illustrated book The Unfeathered Bird, which gave a unique insight into bird anatomy. Her new book, Unnatural Selection, again features her unique combination of accessibly written text and lavish illustrations. The book celebrates the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. In this and in On the Origin of Species, Darwin frequently referred to the rapid changes that breeders could bring about in plants and animals to make evolution understandable. And yet, biologists and naturalists don’t generally hold breeders and their breeds in high regard. In that sense, Unnatural Selection also celebrates their work and knowledge.
Every academic discipline has a few, the contrarian naysayers who steadfastly believe their idea is true, even it flies in the face of natural laws and mountains of evidence to the contrary. Physicists have to contend with inventors of perpetual motion machines, astronomers and geographers have to put up with the growing legion of flat-earthers, and palaeontologists are now faced with this. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Brian J. Ford and his amazing aquatic dinosaurs.