genetics

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 – The Process of Animal Domestication

7-minute read

It is tempting to call animal domestication humanity’s oldest and longest-running experiment, but professor of palaeobiology Marcelo R. Sánchez-Villagra would beg to differ. It is worth opening with a quote from The Process of Animal Domestication to set the tone: “domestication is actually pretty poor as experiments go; there are too many variables involved with little control, and no records of how things started” (p. 206). The excellent structure prevents it from becoming an overwhelming infodump, making this a valuable synthesis of data across a large number of disciplines that will interest a wide range of researchers.

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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 – A Series of Fortunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You

7-minute read

Every one of us is here through a long string of happy accidents that might just as well not have happened. That is the contention behind A Series of Fortunate Events, a short and snappy book by evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll. Examining planetary events, evolution, and our personal lives and deaths—and introducing one remarkable French biologist—it read like an appetizer that left me wanting to explore this topic further.

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Book review – Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19

10-minute read

From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been one of the big questions. The default assumption for many has been zoonosis: a natural spillover event where an infectious disease jumps from an animal host into the human population. But could it have escaped from one of the several virology laboratories in Wuhan? Initially cast aside as a conspiracy theory, the idea has slowly been gaining credibility. Viral is a disconcerting book that considers what we know so far. Though the smoking gun remains missing, the circumstantial evidence raises several red flags. Given the increasingly heated and polarised discussion around this topic, I started reviewing this book with some trepidation.

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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 – Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature

9-minute read

The recent loss of famous entomologist and brilliant mind Edward O. Wilson shook me. In an attempt to find some solace I turned to Richard Rhodes’s recent biography, published only a month before. I already had this lined up for review and was looking forward to it, but this must be the saddest possible reason to prioritise reading a book. Fortunately, I found a warm and respectfully written biography that, as the title suggests, focuses foremost on the scientific achievements of Wilson.

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Book review – Observing Evolution: Peppered Moths and the Discovery of Parallel Melanism

7-minute read

Every student of evolution will be familiar with the peppered moth, Biston betularia. It is right up there with the Galápagos finches as an example of evolution happening right under our noses. The story of the rapid spread of dark moths in response to the soot deposition that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, and the reversal of this pattern when air pollution abated, is iconic. Yet, as Emeritus Professor of biology Bruce S. Grant shows, there are a lot more subtleties to it than my one-liner suggests. Observing Evolution details research by himself and many others, and along the way addresses criticism—legitimate and otherwise—levelled at some of the earlier research. Eminently readable, this is a personal story of the rise, fall, and ultimate redemption of one of the most famous textbook examples of evolution in action.

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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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