Back in 2014, evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner blew my mind. His book Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle gave fascinating answers to the question of where evolutionary innovations come from. I will say more about it below, but in short, there are many ways to solve a problem. But, as Life Finds a Way shows, not all solutions are equally good. To evolve from a suboptimal solution to a superior one usually involves several steps through intermediary solutions that are even worse, something that natural selection acts against. So how does evolution overcome such obstacles? And what does the answer have to do with human creativity? Can we apply these ideas further afield in education or economics? And is this book going to be as good as his last one? So many questions…
The seed of this book, if you will forgive me the pun, lay in an unfortunate collision between a football and the author’s scrotum. This led former neurobiologist Liam Drew to write a piece for Slate about the mammalian testicles and their precarious positioning in the males of this group. Before long, with the birth of his first daughter, he started wondering about lactation and all the other features and oddities that make us mammals. The resulting I, Mammal is a witty, irreverent overview of mammalian biology and evolution that is sure to entertain.
Communicating the complexities and abstractions of scientific findings is not easy. Anyone who has ever slogged through yet another dense paper or muddled presentation will acknowledge this. Our universe, it seems, cares not for the human quest of understanding it. One of the things, then, that makes popular science books such a treat is that they infuse scientific findings and speculation with a certain lyricism and good storytelling. This is why we flock to authors such as Nick Lane, Richard Dawkins, Richard Fortey, and many others besides. This is why Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan remain household names decades after their death. The latter’s Pale Blue Dot segment still gives me goosebumps. With Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World, science historian Oren Harman boldly turns the concept on its head: rather than bringing poetic flair to a pop-science book, he brings scientific flair to an epic poem.
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?
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.
Historically, humans have long considered themselves special compared to the natural world around them. It shows, for example, in old depictions where humans are at or near the top of a chain of lifeforms, with only angels and gods above us. Darwin caused a tremendous ruckus by saying we were descended from primates, and evolutionary biology has since had a long history of diminishing our anthropocentric worldview. With The Book of Humans, self-professed science geek Adam Rutherford has written an entertaining exploration of human evolution, showing that, amidst the teeming multitudes of lifeforms surrounding us, we are really not that special. And yet we are.
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.
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.
I have to preface this review by pointing out that I did not read this book from a fully neutral position. Gil Rosenthal, a professor in biology, ecology and evolutionary biology at Texas A&M University, does mate choice research on fish. So did I. Though he works on live-bearing swordtails and I worked on threespine sticklebacks, some of the work he discusses has been written by people I knew personally as supervisor, co-workers or colleagues. Many more publications referenced are ones I also read during the course of my PhD research. You could say that mate choice research is a field I am, errr, intimately familiar with. At least where fish are concerned. At the same time, I left academia after graduating in 2010, so this book seemed like a good opportunity to get back in touch with this research field.
With his new book, The Creative Spark, Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and anthropologist currently at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, boldly puts forth the idea that what makes humans special is creativity. The ability of humans to switch back and forth between considering what is, and dreaming of what might be, and to then put these thoughts into actions (often collaboratively), has brought us a very long way from our primate origins to the tool-wielding, world-shaping force of nature of today. Along the way, Fuentes wants to do away with some of the dominant narratives regarding human evolution today, or rather, he thinks most of them oversimplify things and lead to distortions in our thinking. Instead, he presents a new synthesis that places creativity front and centre stage as being the most important mechanism that helped us overcome challenges.