Alfred Russel Wallace

Book review – The Earth: A Biography of Life

6-minute read

I have previously jokingly called the “Earth biography” a rite of passage for science writers; many authors try their hand at it at some point. Fortunately, the Earth is big and time is deep, so there are numerous ways to tell this story. Here, it is palaeontologist Elsa Panciroli’s turn. Next to many unusual examples by which to tell the story of life’s evolution, her writing stands out for correcting common misconceptions and for its inspired language.

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Book review – Paleontology: An Illustrated History

6-minute read

It is no mean feat to try and tell the history of a discipline as enormous as palaeontology through images in a mere 256 pages. Yet this is exactly the challenge that David Bainbridge has taken on with this book. He has curated a striking selection of vintage and modern palaeoart, archival photos of fossils and their discoverers, and scientific diagrams through the ages. The resulting Paleontology: An Illustrated History manages to combine the old and the new with the familiar and the unfamiliar into one neatly crafted package that makes for a very nice gift.

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Book review – Plagues upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History

7-minute read

It might sound crass to write that the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in a long line of infectious disease outbreaks, but a little perspective helps. Historian Kyle Harper previously impressed me with his study on the role of climate and disease in the decline of the Roman Empire. In Plagues Upon the Earth, he offers a global, multidisciplinary environmental history of infectious disease, showing that it is a force that has both shaped and been shaped by human history. This magnificent book stood out as much for its nuance and academic rigour as it did for its readability.

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Book review – On the Origin of Evolution: Tracing ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ from Aristotle to DNA

8-minute read

History will forever associate Charles Darwin with the theory of evolution, but the idea was in the air. Had not Darwin published his famous book, someone else would have likely snatched the prize. Husband-and-wife duo John and Mary Gribbin here examine the wider milieu in which Darwin operated and the many thinkers who preceded him. Given their previous collaborations, the first two parts of On the Origin of Evolution read like a well-oiled machine, but the book falters when they turn their eyes to the legacy of Darwin’s ideas.

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Book review – The Story of Evolution in 25 Discoveries: The Evidence and the People Who Found It

6-minute read

After three previous books in this format on fossils, rocks, and dinosaurs, geologist and palaeontologist Donald R. Prothero here tackles the story of evolution in 25 notable discoveries. More so than the previous trio, this book tries to be a servant to two masters, resulting in a mixed bag.

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Book review – The Journeys of Trees: A Story about Forests, People, and the Future

6-minute read

We tend to think of forests as static. Trees, after all, do not move. But that is a perspective foisted upon us by our limbed existence. Science reporter Zach St. George unmasks this illusion in plain terms: when trees die or new ones sprout, the forest has moved a bit. “The migration of a forest is just many trees sprouting in the same direction” (p. 2).

There is no shortage of books on trees, but this sounded like such an unusual take on the subject that I was utterly stoked when I learned of The Journeys of Trees. A journalist who delves into the palaeontological record to consider the slow-motion of movement of forests over deep time? Get in here!

The Journeys of Trees
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Book review – Why Chimpanzees Can’t Learn Language and Only Humans Can

7-minute read

The title of this book leaves little to the imagination and seems like a strong statement – how can we be so sure? The author, behavioural psychologist Herbert S. Terrace, is in a very strong position to make this claim though. Here, he revisits a remarkable experiment conducted in the 1970s to teach a chimpanzee to speak using sign language that ultimately failed. Bringing together subsequent developments in linguistics, palaeoanthropology, and developmental psychology, he has written an incredibly interesting and well-structured book on the evolutionary basis of language.

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Book review – Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society

In popular discourse, the theory of evolution has become a victim of its own success, reduced to sound-bites such as “survival of the fittest”. Biologists will of course quickly point out that this is an oversimplification, though philosopher Daniel S. Milo takes things a few steps further. Good Enough is a thought-provoking critique of the dominance of adaptationist explanations. He argues that, while natural selection is important, it is not the only, possibly not even the default mechanism, in evolution. No, Milo claims, the mediocre also survive and thrive.

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Book review – The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

The tropical birds-of-Paradise have fascinated generations of naturalists, from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (who risked life and limb to collect many specimens for museum holdings) to David Attenborough, who, together with Erroll Fuller, wrote Drawn From Paradise: The Discovery, Art and Natural History of the Birds of Paradise. They were at the centre of a Victorian fashion craze for bird feathers, which decimated many colourful bird families, but they were also at the heart of a far more obscure Victorian pastime: salmon fly-tying. A resurgence in interest led a young man to break into the ornithology collection of the Natural History Museum at Tring, stuff a suitcase with 299 specimens of various rare colourful bird species, and walk out again to sell their feathers.

Wait, what?

Welcome to the story of the natural history heist of the century.

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