Charles Darwin

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 – Science in Black and White: How Biology and Environment Shape Our Racial Divide

6-minute read

Some time after I reviewed Angela Saini’s book Superior, I was contacted by medical anthropologist and science writer Alondra Oubré, offering me the opportunity to review her new book. The overall aim of Science in Black and White might be the same – the debunking of the biological arguments used to justify racist thinking – but Oubré shows there is more than one approach to get there.

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Book review – Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

7-minute read

Whatever mental image you have of our close evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, it is bound to be incomplete. Kindred is an ambitious book that takes in the full sweep of 150 years of scientific discovery and covers virtually every facet of their biology and culture. Archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes has drawn on her extensive experience communicating science outside of the narrow confines of academia to write a book that is as accessible as it is informative, and that stands out for its nuance and progressive outlook. Is this a new popular science benchmark?

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Book review – Universe in Creation: A New Understanding of the Big Bang and the Emergence of Life

7-minute read

Did life arise merely by accident? Many scientists feel uncomfortable with talk of goal-directedness and greater plans, as it reeks more of religion and theology than rational explanation. And with creationists lurking, the risk of “smuggling God in through the back door” under scientific pretences (as Richard Dawkins put it) is something to be wary of. Without descending into this territory, Universe in Creation might skirt dangerously close to it for some. In turns lyrical, unsettling, and, yes, speculative, this book argues that life may be written into the most basic laws of nature.

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Book review – Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA

7-minute read

The history of life is punctuated by major transitions and inventions: fish that moved onto land, reptiles that turned into birds. But how did these happen? In Some Assembly Required, Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy Neil Shubin provides an up-to-date and utterly engrossing account of the latest thinking on the great transformations in evolution. And he has one clue for you: nothing ever begins when you think it does…

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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 – The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them

6-minute read

What is better than a good dinosaur story? How about 25 of them? Geologist and palaeontologist Donald R. Prothero returns to Columbia University Press for the third book in this format. Having covered fossils and rocks, he now serves up 25 fascinating vignettes of famous dinosaurs and the people who discovered them.

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Book review – Rage Inside The Machine: The Prejudice of Algorithms, and How to Stop the Internet Making Bigots of Us All

7-minute read

There is an amusing and slightly acerbic acronym that has stuck with me from my days working at a computer helpdesk for an international oil firm: PICNIC. Short for “problem in chair, not in computer”, my colleagues used it as code whenever an employee rocked up at our helpdesk with a complaint or problem that was due to human clumsiness rather than malfunctioning hardware. “Did you check that the printer was plugged into the power socket?”

Nevertheless, says Artificial Intelligence (AI) researcher Robert Elliott Smith, our blind faith in computers and the algorithms that run them is misguided. Based on his 30 years experience working with AI, the aptly titled Rage Inside the Machine takes the reader on a historical tour of computing to show how today’s technology is both less amoral and more prejudiced than we give it credit for.

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Book review – Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean

6-minute read

The Southern Ocean, that vast body of water that flows unhindered around Antarctica, has to be one of the most forbidding oceans on our planet. Its latitudes are referred to by increasingly unnerving names the gale-force winds that have terrorised mariners since they first set sail here – the roaring forties, the furious fifties, the screaming sixties. Its waters are so cold that they are actually below freezing in places, with only their salinity preventing them from freezing solid (fish here have evolved antifreeze proteins!) As a consequence of these extreme conditions, this region has long remained unexplored. But, as historian Joy McCann shows, explore it we did. Brace yourself for a gripping piece of environmental history, marked by heroism as much as hubris, and curiosity as much as cruelty.

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Book review – Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are

Science has brought us many advances and has deepened our understanding of the world around us, pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance. But as it has given, so it has taken. It has revealed a vast stage whose age is measured in incomprehensible epochs of Deep Time and whose dimensions stretch away into the frigid depths of an uncaring cosmos. Leaving us bereft of meaning and purpose, science has driven home how utterly insignificant we, the denizens of that Pale Blue Dot, ultimately are. Personally, I find this perspective deeply humbling and I know many scientists feel likewise, but I also realise we live in a bubble of our own.

The notion that we are unique, special, or – in the eyes of many still – God’s chosen children, persists. Luckily for us all, evolutionary biologist David P. Barash is here to take down our “species-wide narcissism” a peg or two (or three). But far from a self-congratulatory circle-jerk, Through a Glass Brightly is an erudite, life-affirming, and sometimes riotously amusing look at ourselves.

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