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Book review – The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World

7-minute read

The day an asteroid slammed into the Yucatán Peninsula some 66 million years ago is a strong contender for “the worst day in history”. The K–Pg extinction ended the long evolutionary success story of the dinosaurs and a host of other creatures, and has lodged itself firmly in our collective imagination. But what happened next? The fact that a primate is tapping away at a keyboard writing this review gives you part of the answer. The rise of mammals was not a given, though, and the details have been hard to get by. Here, science writer Riley Black examines and imagines the aftermath of the extinction at various times post-impact. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs ends up being a fine piece of narrative non-fiction with thoughtful observations on the role of evolution in ecosystem recovery.

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Book review – Tropical Arctic: Lost Plants, Future Climates, and the Discovery of Ancient Greenland

7-minute read

Greenland’s name might be considered one of history’s great ironies, apparently part of a cunning plan to attract Viking settlers. The locals simply called it Kalaallit Nunaat or “land of the Kalaallit”, after their people. However, once upon a time, Greenland was green. Tropical Arctic is the fruit of an 18-year collaboration between two palaeobotanists and an artist to bring to life the plant fossils found in East Greenland. In three paintings, it provides a glimpse of Greenland during a 10-million-year window at the Triassic–Jurassic boundary, some 200 million years ago. Much more than a coffee table book, it details the research that goes into producing scientifically accurate artwork, making it a rare treat for readers interested in botany and palaeontology.

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Book review – The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present

7-minute read

Before reading this book, I admit that my knowledge of Madagascar was shamefully rudimentary: I knew its location on the world map, the name of its capital city, and that lemurs are part of its endemic fauna. Fortunately for me, anthropologist Alison Richard, backed by her five decades of research experience, has written a natural history book in the broadest sense of the word, encompassing geology, (palaeo)climatology, botany, zoology, conservation, and much else besides. She skillfully dismantles simplistic dichotomies and is particularly passionate about challenging the dominant conservation narrative that Madagascar was a forested paradise until humans arrived. The Sloth Lemur’s Song is revelatory in more than one way and I came away with a much deeper understanding of this remarkable island.

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Book review – The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next

8-minute read

Fire can be considered one of our oldest tools, long used to shape whole landscapes. But our burning of fossil fuels presents a clear break from what has come before. Riffing on the concept of the Anthropocene, environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne calls ours the Pyrocene: an age of fire. Drawing on a long career writing about and working with fire, The Pyrocene is a short book that overflows with interesting ideas.

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Book review – Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us

7-minute read

We often think of tropical forests as pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands. In Jungle, archaeologist Patrick Roberts shows otherwise. A wealth of research reveals a long and entwined history that saw cities and agriculture flourish in this habitat, while later brutal colonial exploitation underlies many of today’s inequalities and environmental problems. Though revisionist and confrontational in tone, Jungle is a breath of fresh air by not falling for simple narratives. Instead, it retains a welcome dose of nuance and willingness to acknowledge complexity.

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Book review – Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest

8-minute read

The idea that trees communicate and exchange nutrients with each other via underground networks of fungi has captured the popular imagination, helped along by the incredibly catchy metaphor of a “wood-wide web”. Suzanne Simard, a Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia, has developed this idea more than anyone else and happily talks of mother trees nurturing their offspring. This idea has not been without controversy in scientific circles, if only for its anthropomorphic language. I was both sceptical and curious about her ideas. High time, therefore, to give her scientific memoir Finding the Mother Tree a close reading.

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Book review – Mammalian Paleoecology: Using the Past to Study the Present

7-minute read

Scottish geologist Charles Lyell quipped that the present is the key to the past. To say that the reverse also holds is more than just circular reasoning. Felisa Smith, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, studies extinct mammals and applies this knowledge to the present. This book is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge, while its case studies make for fascinating reading. (Spoiler alert: packrat middens are my new favourite discovery.)

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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 – 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 – The Wood Age: How One Material Shaped the Whole of Human History

7-minute read

Throughout human history, wood has been our constant, if somewhat overlooked companion. With The Wood Age, professor of biological sciences Roland Ennos delivers an eye-opening piece of environmental history. Reaching beyond the boundaries of this discipline, it gives the reader a comprehensive picture of how we have shaped wood and how, in turn, wood has shaped us.

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