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.
With the world in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the questions posed by the subtitle of this book are on everyone’s mind. Associate Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Adam Kucharski here takes the reader through the inner workings of contagion. From violence and idea to financial crises and, of course, disease – some universal rules cut right across disciplines. So, is this the most topical book of the year? Well, yes and no.
Let me first welcome all my readers to 2020. Casting my gaze back over last year, 2019 was an exceptionally productive year where I managed to read and review 107 books. Although I fully intend to bring you many more book reviews this year, I am not sure whether I will match that output again.
For those who do not feel like trawling through that many reviews, here is my personal top 5 of the most impactful, most beautiful and most thought-provoking books I read during 2019.
I have written on this blog before that the Internet is not everything it is cracked up to be. Here I will add another string to that bow: crime. Spam, scams, malware, keyloggers, viruses, hacking, identity theft, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, stolen credit card details… the list goes on. Just as its offline counterpart, cybercrime encompasses a diverse array of misdeeds. But where its victims, both personal and corporate, regularly make headlines, the perpetrators remain a mysterious bunch. Based on a huge number of interviews, sociologist Jonathan Lusthaus here provides a peek behind that veil of anonymity. Next to showing that cybercrime has become an industry like any other, he also explores the paradox at its heart: how did this growth happen in an environment of mistrust and anonymity?
I thought I knew of the horrors to be found on the open ocean.
I was wrong.
New York Times investigative reporter Ian Urbina has spent five years, three of which at sea, documenting the stories told here. What began as an award-winning series of articles has now been turned into a book by the same name: The Outlaw Ocean. In turns nail-biting and gut-wrenching, this brutal reportage shows the open ocean to be a dystopian place of crime and exploitation that is hiding in plain sight.
This book was originally announced with the subtitle Every Body Leaves a Mark. Next to a clever play on words, it also nicely captures the subject. Patricia Wiltshire is a professor in forensic ecology, botany, and palynology. That last discipline is the study of pollen and spores and is widely used in archaeology, for example for radiocarbon dating. Wiltshire used to be an environmental archaeologist before stumbling into a new career in her fifties when a phone call heralded an unexpected career change. Traces tells that story and is a fascinating first-hand account of her pioneering contributions to forensic science.
Around the world, wildlife is under pressure. Habitat loss, hunting and poaching, invasive species, climate change – pressure is exerted on many fronts. One particularly insidious and ugly kind of threat is wildlife trafficking. Much like the illegal trade in narcotics, modern-day slaves, or counterfeited goods (and commonly connected to the same cartels), there is a vast and sprawling black market in animals – dead and alive – and animal parts. With Poached, journalist Rachel Love Nuwer presents an incredibly wide-ranging and thorough investigation of the drivers of this trade, its victims and measures to combat it.
Where do fossils belong? Should they be housed in museums, available for study by scientists to learn more about our planet’s deep history? Or can they be treated like exclusive souvenirs, traded and auctioned on a market that stocks the private collections of rich people? Journalist Paige Williams here tells the full story, warts and all, of a high-profile auction gone awry. She initially reported on this in 2013 in the New Yorker. Up for sale? A fully reconstructed skeleton of Tarbosaurus bataar, the Asian cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex.
If I asked you to name the most endangered cetacean species, I doubt the vaquita would come to mind. You might mention the baiji, the dolphin living in China’s Yangtze river, but alas, no living members of this species have been seen for years, despite intense search efforts, and the species is presumed extinct. Unfortunately, the vaquita seems to be next in line. Biologist Brooke Bessesen here tells its sad story, revealing the complex world of species conservation.
The tropical birds-of-Paradise have fascinated generations of naturalists, from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell 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.
Welcome to the story of the natural history heist of the century.