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.
The ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi (also written Lao Tzu) supposedly wrote that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. But as writer David Barrie shows with Incredible Journeys, before we can even take that step, every journey starts with navigation: where are you and where are you going? Animals of all stripes can make incredibly long journeys, usually without getting lost. This wonderful popular science book explores the remarkable diversity of strategies they employ to find their way.
Underground spaces exert a strong pull on the imagination of most people, although for some this morphs into a fascination bordering on the obsessive. American author Will Hunt is one such person, part of a worldwide community of urban explorers who infiltrate into “the city’s obscure layers”. Though this encompasses more than underground spaces, they are a big part of it, and this book is Hunt’s story of how he fell in love with them. It is one of two big books published only five months apart on the subterranean realm, and I previously reviewed Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey. Here I will turn my attention to Underground.
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.
Being turned into a zombie is not something most of us worry about. Sure, some of us consider humans metaphorical zombies, controlled by mass media / the government / smartphone addiction / my pet hamster / ________ (fill in your own favourite 21st-century angst here). All I can say after reading Matt Simon’s book is that I am glad that I am not an insect. In turns gruesome and hilarious, Plight of the Living Dead is a carnival of the many grotesque ways that parasites can control their hosts. Something we do not have to worry about… or do we?
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.
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.
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.
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.