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.
Spontaneous generation, the idea that life can arise out of non-living matter, is both alive and dead today. Current science accepts the idea that at some point in the distant past, complex self-replicating molecules arose, which formed the starting point of billions of years of unicellular life. But there is an obsolete side to this theory. For millennia, philosophers and scientists believed that all sorts of creatures could arise spontaneously from the mud and slime this book refers to. In the late 1850s, The French microbiologist Louis Pasteur performed experiments that definitively put the nail in the coffin for this idea.
Quite a few books have been written about the later discussions around this theory and its eventual demise (contemporary examples are John Farley’s The Spontaneous Generation Controversy from Descartes to Oparin or James Strick’s Sparks of Life: Darwinism and the Victorian Debates over Spontaneous Generation). Based on a three-part lecture series, this purposefully short book, which is not intended as a complete history, gives a whistle-stop tour of spontaneous generation from Antiquity to 1769. Are you ready?