When considering environmental issues, the usual rallying cry is that of “saving the planet”. Rarely do people acknowledge that, rather, it is us who need saving from ourselves. We have appropriated ever-larger parts of Earth for our use while trying to separate ourselves from it, ensconced in cities. But we cannot keep the forces of life at bay forever. In A Natural History of the Future, ecologist and evolutionary biologist Rob Dunn considers some of the rules and laws that underlie biology to ask what is in store for us as a species, and how we might survive without destroying the very fabric on which we depend.
Do you eat? Then you might wish to consider that farming is destroying the planet. Or so argues Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot, who is never one to shirk controversy. I have a lot of time for Monbiot. I might not agree with everything he has written over the years, but I find his ideas to be driven by sound logic and appropriate scepticism. He is neither afraid to admit his mistakes nor to piss people off by saying things they do not want to hear. In that sense, Regenesis is a necessary provocation.
The idea that trees communicate and exchange nutrients with each other via underground networks of fungi has captured the popular imagination, helped along by the incredibly catchy metaphor of a “wood-wide web”. Suzanne Simard, a Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia, has developed this idea more than anyone else and happily talks of mother trees nurturing their offspring. This idea has not been without controversy in scientific circles, if only for its anthropomorphic language. I was both sceptical and curious about her ideas. High time, therefore, to give her scientific memoir Finding the Mother Tree a close reading.
Scottish geologist Charles Lyell quipped that the present is the key to the past. To say that the reverse also holds is more than just circular reasoning. Felisa Smith, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, studies extinct mammals and applies this knowledge to the present. This book is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge, while its case studies make for fascinating reading. (Spoiler alert: packrat middens are my new favourite discovery.)
The recent loss of famous entomologist and brilliant mind Edward O. Wilson shook me. In an attempt to find some solace I turned to Richard Rhodes’s recent biography, published only a month before. I already had this lined up for review and was looking forward to it, but this must be the saddest possible reason to prioritise reading a book. Fortunately, I found a warm and respectfully written biography that, as the title suggests, focuses foremost on the scientific achievements of Wilson.
Are we alone in the universe? For the moment, this question remains unanswered, though there are many ways to tackle it. Just how many was something I did not appreciate until I sunk my teeth into Harvard University Press’s new flagship astronomy title Life in the Cosmos. Written by astrobiologist Manasvi Lingam and theoretical physicist Abraham “Avi” Loeb, this is a book of truly colossal proportions, clocking in at over 1000 pages. It boldly goes where few academic books have gone before by seriously and open-mindedly considering the possibility of extraterrestrial technological intelligence on par with, or far beyond humans. I found myself gravitating towards this book on account of more than just its size.
Books can be like buses: nothing is written on a topic for ages and then two books appear in quick succession. The subtitle of Life as We Made It resembles that of the recently-reviewed Life Changing. Both books indeed cover the same topic: how humans have shaped the genetics and evolution of plants and animals around them. Despite some inevitable overlap, Beth Shapiro draws on two decades of her career as a geneticist to make Life as We Made It a beast all of its own. I found myself both thoroughly enjoying her fantastic science communication while disagreeing with her outlook.
I remember, some years ago, the news headlines of an impending insect mass extinction. But I similarly remember pushback against the term “insect apocalypse”. When the publisher Jonathan Cape announced that well-known entomologist Dave Goulson was working on Silent Earth, my interest was naturally piqued. So, how bad is it, really?
Ever since humans appeared on the scene, we have been altering life on Earth. Where once our actions could be considered part of nature’s fabric, our influence has become outsized and our options to exercise it have multiplied. Though the subtitle of Life Changing does not make it explicit, science writer Helen Pilcher focuses on our impact on the genetics and evolution of life around us. A book that stands out for its balanced tone, it managed to surprise me more than once, despite my familiarity with the topics considered.
If you asked ten scientists what made them choose their profession, would you get ten different answers? My instinct tells me that curiosity is an overriding factor for many. It certainly was for palaeontologist Richard Fortey. Published just days after his 75th birthday, A Curious Boy reflects on his earliest years and was such a disarming and enjoyable memoir that I finished it in a single day.