genetics

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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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 – Life in the Cosmos: From Biosignatures to Technosignatures

8-minute read

Are we alone in the universe? For the moment, this question remains unanswered, though there are many ways to tackle it. Just how many was something I did not appreciate until I sunk my teeth into Harvard University Press’s new flagship astronomy title Life in the Cosmos. Written by astrobiologist Manasvi Lingam and theoretical physicist Abraham “Avi” Loeb, this is a book of truly colossal proportions, clocking in at over 1000 pages. It boldly goes where few academic books have gone before by seriously and open-mindedly considering the possibility of extraterrestrial technological intelligence on par with, or far beyond humans. I found myself gravitating towards this book on account of more than just its size.

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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’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 – The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer

7 -minute read

Fifty years ago, US President Richard Nixon declared a “war on cancer” when he signed the National Cancer Act. Despite fantastic progress on some fronts, overall it is clear that we are not winning this battle. Cancer remains one of the leading causes of human mortality. But what if the tired war-metaphor is getting it all wrong? Brimming with thought-provoking questions, The Cheating Cell looks at cancer through an evolutionary lens and forces the reader to radically reconsider cancer; not as a bug, but as a feature of life.

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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 – 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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