For all my reading of scientific books, I have a little secret (though judging by the number of books, it is actually not all that little): I am a huge fan of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and of books exploring his world in further detail. Despite Tolkien’s world being fictional, he populated it mostly with real plants. Retired plant systematist Walter Judd, also a huge fan, took it upon himself to write a flora with detailed species accounts of all the plants Tolkien mentions, with artist Graham Judd providing illustrations. The resulting Flora of Middle-Earth is a tastefully illustrated and botanically sound book, but who on (Middle) Earth will read this?
Sea otters don’t eat algae. And yet, their diet influences the abundance of seaweed. How? Indirectly. Sea otters eating sea urchins (spiky animals in the same class as sea stars) eating kelp has become a textbook example of a trophic cascade, and Serendipity is a first-hand account by ecologist James A. Estes of how this happened. A trophic cascade refers to the indirect effects that ripple through a food web as a result of, for example, a predator consuming its prey. Simultaneously, the book is a searingly open account of how science is done, how ideas change, and how fortuitous events can suddenly send your research programme off in a whole new direction.
Since being released on the world in 2012, the biotechnological tool CRISPR has been making headlines. Biologists used to rely on the relatively blunt tools of genetic modification, but this new tool is so precise and versatile that they now speak of gene editing instead. For people in a hurry, Nessa Carey here provides a primer on the powers and pitfalls of gene editing. Hacking the Code of Life is accessible to readers without much background in genetics, focusing more on the applications and the questions it raises than the nitty-gritty details of the tool itself.
Not so long ago, the idea that giant reptiles once roamed the earth was novel, unbelievable to some, but their reign represents only one part of deep time. Go back further in time, to the Carboniferous (358.9 to 298.9 million years ago), and you will find a world of giants as bizarre and otherworldly as the dinosaurs must have once seemed to us. A world where clubmoss trees grew up to 50 metres tall, with scorpions as large as dogs and flying insects the size of seagulls. With Carboniferous Giants and Mass Extinction, palaeobiologist George McGhee, Jr. presents a scholarly but fascinating overview of the rise and fall of this lost world, and why it still matters to us.
Primaeval, pristine, playground of Indiana Jones, home to ancient ruins and primitive tribes – nothings says wilderness more than tropical rainforests. They have had a firm grip on our collective imagination for centuries as the antithesis of civilization. But after reading archaeologist Patrick Roberts’s Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity, it seems my introduction is a load of lyrical rubbish. Synthesizing an enormous body of scientific literature, this book dispels the Victorian-era explorer-mystique to reveal a picture that is far more fascinating.
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?
When I reviewed the book Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics, one of the reasons that was discussed as to why we should protect nature was the possibility of undiscovered pharmaceutical drugs. Seasoned ethnobotanist Robert A. Voeks shows that this so-called jungle medicine narrative has a long history. Though partially true, it equally contains parts myth, sentimentality, and nostalgia. However, if you are expecting a sceptical critique of superstitious indigenous practices – I was initially wondering whether the book would – no, this book delivers something far more interesting. Without belittling traditional knowledge, Voeks instead exposes the flaws in our interpretation and delivers a nuanced and fascinating ethnobotanical history lesson to boot.
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.
Aaah, GMOs. Was there ever a topic comparable to genetically modified organisms that riled people on either side of the debate this much? Written by an organic farmer and plant geneticist, Tomorrow’s Table is a marvellous work that walks the middle road, asking: Why should we not combine the best that organic farming and genetic engineering have to offer? Along the way, it exposes the often illogical, contradictory and, frankly, infuriating attitudes and opinions of the anti-GMO movement, politely smothering them with facts, while also teaching the technology cheerleaders a lesson or two. I love this book.
Who could refuse such an invitation to dinner? In fourteen short chapters, Dinner with Darwin provides a smörgåsbord of topics on the role of food in human evolution and vice versa, many of which have been covered here in recent reviews. This is Jonathan Silvertown’s fourth book with the University of Chicago Press, and based on this, I would love to read his other books as well. Care to join me at the table?