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 – 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 – 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 – 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

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 – On the Prowl: In Search of Big Cat Origins

7-minute read

Charismatic as big cats might be, their origins and evolutionary history are still not fully understood. In a mind-bogglingly beautiful marriage of art and science, On the Prowl provides a current overview of big cat evolution that will have many a book lover purring with pleasure.

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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 – How to Predict Everything: The Formula Transforming What We Know About Life and the Universe

6-minute read

How do you predict something that has never happened before? That is the question heading this book. And as it so happens, there is an app formula for that. Purportedly a book about Bayes’s theorem, author William Poundstone quickly latches onto the doomsday argument and whizzes the reader through a mishmash of thought experiments and philosophical puzzles that try to answer the question how long humans will survive.

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Book review – Time and the Generations: Population Ethics for a Diminishing Planet

7-minute read

How many people can planet Earth support? That is the thorny question that economist Partha Dasgupta tackles in Time and the Generations. Or, as he asks: “How should we evaluate the ethics of procreation, especially the environmental consequences of reproductive decisions on future generations, in a resource-constrained world?” Given that I have previously called overpopulation the elephant in the room that few wish to address, my interest was immediately piqued.

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