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Book review – Plagues upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History

7-minute read

It might sound crass to write that the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in a long line of infectious disease outbreaks, but a little perspective helps. Historian Kyle Harper previously impressed me with his study on the role of climate and disease in the decline of the Roman Empire. In Plagues Upon the Earth, he offers a global, multidisciplinary environmental history of infectious disease, showing that it is a force that has both shaped and been shaped by human history. This magnificent book stood out as much for its nuance and academic rigour as it did for its readability.

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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 – Aesop’s Animals: The Science Behind the Fables

8-minute read

This is the second of a two-part review delving deeper into the world-famous collection of animal tales known as Aesop’s Fables. Having just reviewed a collection of the fables, I here turn to Aesop’s Animals, which looks at the facts behind the fiction.

It is undisputed that stories shape our perception, especially when told to us repeatedly from a young age. We have collectively bestowed human character traits on animals through Aesop’s Fables and other fairytales. Foxes are sly, donkeys are stubborn, and wolves can never be trusted, right? In Aesop’s Animals, zoologist and science writer Jo Wimpenny takes you on a tour through the study of animal behaviour, both in the field and in the laboratory, to show you what these animals are actually like. Reality, it turns out, is not only stranger than fiction, but also far richer and more fascinating.

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Book review – Aesop’s Fables

7-minute read

This is the first of a two-part review delving deeper into the world-famous collection of animal tales known as Aesop’s Fables. In preparation for reviewing Aesop’s Animals from Bloomsbury Sigma, which looks at the facts behind the fiction, I decided to first read the fables themselves. I could not have picked a better time. The Bodleian Library has just published a collection of Aesop’s Fables with some scrumptious woodcut illustrations to boot.

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Book review – Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined – and Redefined – Nature

7-minute read

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.

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Book review – Life Changing: How Humans Are Altering Life on Earth

7-minute read

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.

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Book review – Yellowstone Wolves: Science and Discovery in the World’s First National Park

7-minute read

The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park is one of the best-known examples of wildlife conservation. To celebrate its 25th anniversary and summarise the many lessons learned, Yellowstone Wolf Project leaders Douglas W. Smith and Daniel R. Stahler, together with wildlife ecologist Daniel R. MacNulty, bring together research from over 70 colleagues in this large, edited collection. The combination of academic content, excellent photography, guest essays, and an online bonus documentary with interviews make this the go-to reference work for anyone wanting to go beyond the headlines on this reintroduction project.

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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 – 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 – A Polar Affair: Antarctica’s Forgotten Hero and the Secret Love Lives of Penguins

7-minute read

This has to be a story worthy of the name “scoop of the century”. Penguin biologist Lloyd Spencer Davis has been studying mating behaviour in Adelie penguins since 1977, carefully documenting how penguins are far from the paragons of monogamy that they were long held to be. That is until 2012 when an unpublished manuscript comes to light showing that somebody beat him to the punch… by more than six decades! A certain George Murray Levick carefully documented the same penguin antics that Davis would later build his career on. But who was this Levick? And why did he never publish his observations? Join Davis for a most unlikely story of polar exploration, penguins, and perversion.

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