consciousness

Book review – Being a Human: Adventures in 40,000 Years of Consciousness

9-minute read

In Being a Human, Charles Foster attempts to inhabit three past eras to find out first-hand how humans came to be who they are. He lives like an Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer, an early farmer in the Neolithic, and he briefly visits the Enlightenment – or so we are promised. When I received this book, I was, admittedly, slightly unsure. Any attempt to live like past humans, especially hunter-gatherers, is fraught with difficulties as so many things have irrevocably changed: the flora and fauna, the landscape, the knowledge most of us have gained (you cannot really unsee germ theory) but also lost (who here can kill and prepare an animal or make a fire without modern tools?), or the fact that we lived in large communal groups. When the flap text also mentions shamanic journeys I was fearing the worst: am I about to witness yet another affluent man’s mid-life crisis?

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Book review – Sentient: What Animals Reveal About Our Senses

7-minute read

Animals are frequently celebrated for their exceptional senses, being able to hear, see, or smell things that we cannot. In Sentient, zoologist and television documentary director Jackie Higgins shows that some of this research has taught us more about how humans perceive the world, while other research reveals that we are less of a pushover in the sensory department than we previously thought. And do we really have only five senses? We need to talk about Aristotle.

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Book review – Life in the Cosmos: From Biosignatures to Technosignatures

8-minute read

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.

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Book review – Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive

7-minute read

The word biology derives from the Greek words bíos (βίος in Greek), meaning “life”, and -logía (-λογία in Greek), meaning “branch of study”, and is usually defined as “the study of life”. But what is life? Remarkably, biologists cannot agree on a definition. Everyone can name clear examples of living and non-living things. However, as so often in biology, there is no sharp demarcation between the two. There is a grey area where things are, well, somewhat alive? Lifelike? It is these borderlands between life and non-life that famous science writer and journalist Carl Zimmer explores in Life’s Edge. Instead of providing an answer, this intellectually stimulating and rewarding book will help you understand why it is such a hard question to begin with.

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Book review – We Know It When We See It: What the Neurobiology of Vision Tells Us About How We Think

6-minute read

Understanding the eye is only the first step to understanding how we see. Vision is as much about perceiving, which means understanding how the brain works. We Know It When We See It is the swansong of neuroscientist and ophthalmologist Richard Masland, who passed away in December 2019. His research career spanned over four decades and he was lauded internationally for his work on retinal neurobiology. In this book, his love for teaching shines through, and it was a pleasure to join him on one last trip through the neurobiology of vision.

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Book review – Metazoa: Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness

7-minute read

In 2016, the scuba-diving philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith wrote Other Minds where he explored the mind of the octopus – I reviewed it right before reading this book. Its bestseller status, including translations in more than 20 languages, was not entirely unpredictable. Octopuses are a sexy topic. Four years later, he explores animal minds further with Metazoa, with the tour now also including sponges, corals, shrimp, insects, fish, and mammals. Godfrey-Smith convinced me he is no one-trick pony when it comes to writing a good book, though this one is more cerebral than its predecessor.

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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 – Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn to be Animals

7-minute read

In his previous book, Beyond Words, ecologist Carl Safina convinced his readers of the rich inner lives of animals. Just like we do, they have thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But the similarities do not stop there. Becoming Wild focuses on animal culture, the social knowledge that is transmitted between individuals and generations through sharing and learning. The more we look, the more animals seem less different from us – or we from them. On top of that, Safina puts forward several eye-opening and previously-overlooked implications of animal culture.

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Book review – Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

7-minute read

Recognising that animals are intelligent beings with inner lives, emotions – even personalities – has a troubled place in the history of ethology, the study of animal behaviour. For most pet owners, these things will seem self-evident, but ethologists have long been hostile to the idea of anthropomorphising animals by attributing human characteristics to them. The tide is turning, though, and on the back of decades-long careers, scientists such as Frans de Waal, Marc Bekoff, and Carl Safina have become well-known public voices breaking down this outdated taboo. In preparation of reviewing Safina’s new book Becoming Wild, I decided I should first read his bestseller Beyond Words. I have to issue an apology here: courtesy of the publisher Henry Holt I have had a review copy of this book for several years that gathered dust until now. And that was entirely my loss, as Beyond Words turned out to be a beautiful, moving book.

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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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