genes

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 – On the Origin of Evolution: Tracing ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ from Aristotle to DNA

8-minute read

History will forever associate Charles Darwin with the theory of evolution, but the idea was in the air. Had not Darwin published his famous book, someone else would have likely snatched the prize. Husband-and-wife duo John and Mary Gribbin here examine the wider milieu in which Darwin operated and the many thinkers who preceded him. Given their previous collaborations, the first two parts of On the Origin of Evolution read like a well-oiled machine, but the book falters when they turn their eyes to the legacy of Darwin’s ideas.

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Book review – The Genesis Quest: The Geniuses and Eccentrics on a Journey to Uncover the Origin of Life on Earth

8-minute read

The Genesis Quest is one of those books that quickly makes a good case for its own existence. It takes the reader through the century-long research endeavour on the origin of life, providing a big-picture overview of who’s who and how their ideas have waxed and waned. Such an overview requires an outsider’s perspective on the whole show, which is exactly what science writer Michael Marshall achieves in my opinion. A superb starting point if you want to read more on this subject, this is the book I wish I had read earlier.

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Book review – A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane

7-minute read

Students of genetics and evolution might be familiar with the name of J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964), particularly for his contributions to population genetics. What I did not realise before reading A Dominant Character was that he had many more strings to his bow and was a larger-than-life character. In a fascinating biography that never seeks to downplay his complicated character, journalist Samanth Subramanian effortlessly switches back and forth between Haldane’s personal life and his many scientific contributions.

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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 – Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA

7-minute read

The history of life is punctuated by major transitions and inventions: fish that moved onto land, reptiles that turned into birds. But how did these happen? In Some Assembly Required, Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy Neil Shubin provides an up-to-date and utterly engrossing account of the latest thinking on the great transformations in evolution. And he has one clue for you: nothing ever begins when you think it does…

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Book review – The Invertebrate Tree of Life

6-minute read

To outsiders, phylogenetics, the study of the evolutionary relationships between organisms, must seem like quicksand: the landscape is ever-changing and what you thought was solid ground can turn into contested and unstable territory overnight. Even so, we are getting an ever-clearer picture. In no small part this is due to new methods: the rapid technological progress in DNA sequencing has now made it both feasible and affordable to sequence whole genomes (all of a cell’s DNA) instead of selected genes for many taxa. And when you can bring multiple lines of evidence – morphological, developmental, genetic, and palaeontological – to bear on the question of evolutionary relationships, the resulting family trees become better supported and more credible. That is exactly what Gonzalo Giribet and Gregory Edgecombe, both experts in invertebrate biology and palaeontology, have done here in The Invertebrate Tree of Life – a work of dizzying scope since 96% of all known species are invertebrates. They have synthesized a truly monstrous amount of research to give an overview of our current thinking on invertebrate phylogeny, writing a new benchmark reference work for students of invertebrates.

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Book review – Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are

6-minute read

Science has brought us many advances and has deepened our understanding of the world around us, pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance. But as it has given, so it has taken. It has revealed a vast stage whose age is measured in incomprehensible epochs of Deep Time and whose dimensions stretch away into the frigid depths of an uncaring cosmos. Leaving us bereft of meaning and purpose, science has driven home how utterly insignificant we, the denizens of that Pale Blue Dot, ultimately are. Personally, I find this perspective deeply humbling and I know many scientists feel likewise, but I also realise we live in a bubble of our own.

The notion that we are unique, special, or – in the eyes of many still – God’s chosen children, persists. Luckily for us all, evolutionary biologist David P. Barash is here to take down our “species-wide narcissism” a peg or two (or three). But far from a self-congratulatory circle-jerk, Through a Glass Brightly is an erudite, life-affirming, and sometimes riotously amusing look at ourselves.

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Book review – Unravelling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA

Most people will at least be mildly familiar with the story of how the structure of DNA was discovered. Francis Crick and James D. Watson are household names in this story as they went on to win a Nobel Prize. But can you name the third person to share it with them? Most people will also have heard of Rosalind Franklin, but as Gareth Williams shows, so many other people were relevant to this story. Watson and Crick only put the finishing cherry on the cake. Unravelling the Double Helix covers the preceding 85 years of breakthroughs, blind alleys, near-misses, and “beautifully executed bellyflops” by some of the greatest scientists of their time.

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Book review – Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society

In popular discourse, the theory of evolution has become a victim of its own success, reduced to sound-bites such as “survival of the fittest”. Biologists will of course quickly point out that this is an oversimplification, though philosopher Daniel S. Milo takes things a few steps further. Good Enough is a thought-provoking critique of the dominance of adaptationist explanations. He argues that, while natural selection is important, it is not the only, possibly not even the default mechanism, in evolution. No, Milo claims, the mediocre also survive and thrive.

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