book review

Book review – Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind

6-minute read

This is the final of three reviews of MIT Press books in The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology dealing with convergent evolution, something I consider to be one of evolutionary biology’s most exciting topics. Are evolutionary changes happy accidents, i.e. contingencies? Or is there a law-like repeatability underneath, explaining why some traits evolve time and again, i.e. convergence? Is it even a matter of either-or? And what lessons does this hold for life elsewhere in the universe? Philosopher Russell Powell wrestles with these questions in a manner that is as rigorous as it is intellectually rewarding. Evolutionary biologists will want to give this excellent book a very close read.

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Book review – Convergent Evolution on Earth: Lessons for the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

6-minute read

Planet Earth might just as well be called Planet Water. Not only is our planet mostly ocean, life also started out here. Following his 2011 book Convergent Evolution, palaeobiologist George R. McGhee returns to MIT Press and The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology to expand his examination to oceanic lifeforms, with the tantalising promise of applying the insights gained to astrobiology. I was particularly stoked for this second of a three-part dive into what I consider one of evolutionary biology’s most exciting topics.

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Book review – Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful

6-minute read

Convergent evolution was the subject of the first book I reviewed on this blog and is a topic I keep returning to. MIT Press recently published two further books on it, Convergent Evolution on Earth in 2019 and Contingency and Convergence in 2020. I felt the time was ripe to finally read their 2011 book Convergent Evolution that I bought some years ago. All three of these are part of The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology, a series I hold in high regard. This, then, is the first of a three-part dive into what I consider one of evolutionary biology’s most exciting topics.

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Book review – Finding our Place in the Universe: How We Discovered Laniakea – the Milky Way’s Home

6-minute read

The images that astronomers produce can shape whole generations. Based on the Pale Blue Dot photo taken by the Voyager 1 space probe, Carl Sagan’s moving speech in Cosmos highlighted how small and insignificant we appear in the vastness of the universe. But we are not alone, being part of the solar system which is part of the Milky way galaxy. And ours is but one of billions, possibly trillions, of galaxies in the universe that, interestingly, are not scattered at random in space. In this compact and engagingly written book, French cosmographer Hélène Courtois shows you the next level up: superclusters. When it was published in 2014, the image of the supercluster to which our galaxy belongs for me was another one of those generation-defining images. It was of such stunning beauty that it stopped me in my tracks. Welcome to Laniakea, our home amidst the stars.

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Book review – A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future

8-minute read

The legendary British broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough needs almost no introduction. From his first appearance on our television screens in 1954, he has gone on to a long and distinguished career presenting and narrating groundbreaking nature documentaries. And he shows no sign of slowing down. His voice and style have become so iconic that he has been dubbed the voice of nature. Over the years, he has increasingly expressed concern over the state of the natural world, and in A Life on Our Planet Attenborough fully engages with this topic. However, when you turn to the title page you will notice the name of a co-author, Jonnie Hughes, who directed the Netflix documentary tying in with this book. As Attenborough explains in his acknowledgements, Hughes has been particularly instrumental in the writing of the third part of the book, together with substantial assistance of the Science Team at WWF. This is Attenborough’s witness statement, yes, but whose vision of the future is it?

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Book review – Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason

6-minute read

2020. A time of Trump. Written during a period of pandemic, it is a chronicle of conspiracies embellished with the flowers of falsehoods. In other words, it is tempting to think of the current moment as one of irrationality run rampant. If you have been entertaining similar thoughts, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason provides a poignant note and a fascinating reflection. Because, when you take some distance, you might ask if it has ever been different. How many people past have wondered the same from their unique vantage point? Have we really made any progress towards enlightenment, or is our history merely the back-and-forth sloshing of the tides of reason and unreason?

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Book review – Army Ants: Nature’s Ultimate Social Hunters

6-minute read

If ants give you the heebie-jeebies, you will want to turn away now, for this book review will deal with the ultimate arthropod nightmare: army ants. If, however, insects are your shtick, stick around, because German entomologist Daniel Kronauer has written a phenomenal book on army ant biology that is chock-a-block with jaw-dropping, award-winning photography.

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Book review – Planetary Accounting: Quantifying How to Live Within Planetary Limits at Different Scales of Human Activity

7-minute read

What I am about to write is probably going to upset many people, but… I am growing frustrated with the narrative of much of the environmental movement. Taking to the streets to protest and demand change, to “do something!”, is all fine and dandy, but it is also a bit hypocritical. It fosters a narrative in which the onus is always on others and it begs the counter-question: “what are you willing to give up?”. That is the hard question.

There, I said it. You have the option to stop reading now.

In all seriousness, if we want to avert dangerous climate change or allow forests to recover from deforestation, how much change is enough? How much are we allowed to consume? Planetary Accounting will not offer you final prescriptive answers, but it is an important first step in quantifying per capita quota for what each of us can consume and pollute without it costing the planet.

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Book review – Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care

6-minute read

Despite its purposefully provocative title, Limits is not a pro-growth book that panders to the illusion of endless economic growth. Starting with a thought-provoking re-reading of Malthus, ecological economist and political ecologist Giorgos Kallis examines how his ideas have influenced economics and have been misinterpreted by environmentalists, before ending with a call to collective self-limitation. Along the way, there is a healthy dollop of reflection and pre-emptive defence of his arguments. Though I have some points of criticism, Limits by and large concisely formulates ideas that I have found myself gravitating towards more and more lately.

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Book review – The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing the Triumph of Yellowstone’s Underdog

6-minute read

The lives of animal groups can be as full of intrigue, drama, and machinations as any novel or movie starring humans. But revealing this requires extraordinary perseverance. Following their reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park, no other wolves in the world have been more closely monitored. And of all the people involved, nobody has spent more time in the field watching them than biological technician and park ranger Rick McIntyre. Amongst wolf aficionados, wolf 21 – for the wolves are identified by a number – was one the most famous. But before 21, there was wolf 8, and this is his story.

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