Why, of all the species that have ever existed, have only us humans reached this unparalleled level of intelligence and social organisation? When a senior scientist such as Edward O. Wilson trains his mind on such a question, you hope to be in for a treat.
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.
After the recently published Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present left me little the wiser on how epigenetics actually works, I decided to track down a copy of Nessa Carey’s The Epigenetics Revolution. As one of two popular books published around the same time, it seemed like a good place to start. Peter Ward was right about one thing, this is indeed a landmark book, even if it is now a few years old.
As one of several intellectuals who wrote about evolution before Darwin, time has not been kind to the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Reviled during his lifetime by the influential Cuvier, after his death he became best remembered, and ultimately ridiculed, for the idea that characters acquired during an organism’s lifetime are passed on to its offspring. With the rise of the modern field of epigenetics, some of his ideas are making a comeback, albeit modified and adapted for the 21st Century. Palaeontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward would even like to go so far as to restore some honour to his name and consider epigenetics a neo-Lamarckian process.
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…
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.
I sometimes wonder whether I am a closet Buddhist. Now, I will be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about Buddhism, but what little I have encountered often strikes a chord with me. The Enlightened Gene shows there might a be a good reason for this. This book chronicles a most unlikely project: the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. On the invitation of the Dalai Lama no less (!), Emory University has developed a science curriculum to be taught to Tibetan monks and nuns in exile in India. Spearheaded by professor Arri Eisen and in close collaboration with monk Geshe Yungdrung Konchok, the aim is to integrate modern science (focusing on physics and life sciences, especially neuroscience) into their monastic curriculum.
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.
Here is a strange question: does the sight of a peacock’s tail make you sick? Well, it did have this effect on Charles Darwin. The reason was perhaps more cerebral than anything else. With A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction, professor in animal behaviour Michael J. Ryan gives a superbly readable and accessible account of his and other’s studies that address how sexual beauty comes about, and why we see such a bewildering diversity of traits used in mate choice.
We biologists are a moody bunch, aren’t we? Forever lamenting the loss of biodiversity and unspoiled wild nature around us as humanity transforms the planet. The Anthropocene, the sixth extinction – I dare say you could accuse us of a certain doom-mongering. We ought to present a united front to the many threats unscrupulous groups in the outside world throw at our precious wildlife. So, beware the biologist that breaks rank and suggests a different narrative – he or she can expect a healthy amount of criticism. So it was with Chris D. Thomas’s recent book Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction (read my interview with him over at my employer’s blog The Hoopoe). And so it is with Menno Schilthuizen’s new book Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution. You leave it to us pragmatic Dutch to say out loud the things you don’t like to hear…