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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 – Aesop’s Animals: The Science Behind the Fables

8-minute read

This is the second of a two-part review delving deeper into the world-famous collection of animal tales known as Aesop’s Fables. Having just reviewed a collection of the fables, I here turn to Aesop’s Animals, which looks at the facts behind the fiction.

It is undisputed that stories shape our perception, especially when told to us repeatedly from a young age. We have collectively bestowed human character traits on animals through Aesop’s Fables and other fairytales. Foxes are sly, donkeys are stubborn, and wolves can never be trusted, right? In Aesop’s Animals, zoologist and science writer Jo Wimpenny takes you on a tour through the study of animal behaviour, both in the field and in the laboratory, to show you what these animals are actually like. Reality, it turns out, is not only stranger than fiction, but also far richer and more fascinating.

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Book review – Aesop’s Fables

7-minute read

This is the first of a two-part review delving deeper into the world-famous collection of animal tales known as Aesop’s Fables. In preparation for reviewing Aesop’s Animals from Bloomsbury Sigma, which looks at the facts behind the fiction, I decided to first read the fables themselves. I could not have picked a better time. The Bodleian Library has just published a collection of Aesop’s Fables with some scrumptious woodcut illustrations to boot.

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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 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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Book review – The Story of Evolution in 25 Discoveries: The Evidence and the People Who Found It

6-minute read

After three previous books in this format on fossils, rocks, and dinosaurs, geologist and palaeontologist Donald R. Prothero here tackles the story of evolution in 25 notable discoveries. More so than the previous trio, this book tries to be a servant to two masters, resulting in a mixed bag.

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Book review – Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Extraordinary Fossils

7-minute read

Fossils can tell us what animals living in the distant past looked like. Over the centuries, palaeontologists have made incredible strides in reconstructing extinct life forms, helped along by cumulative experience, technological advances, and a steadily increasing body of rare but truly exceptionally preserved fossils. But reconstructing their behaviour – surely that is all just speculative? In Locked in Time, palaeontologist and science communicator Dean R. Lomax, with the able help of palaeoartist Bob Nicholls, presents fifty of the most exceptional fossils that preserve evidence of past behaviour: from pregnant plesiosaurs to a pterosaur pierced by a predatory fish. I was eagerly awaiting this book from the moment it was announced, but I was still caught off-guard by some of the astonishing fossil discoveries featured here.

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Book review – Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity

6-minute read

What is the price of humanity’s progress? The cover of this book, featuring a dusty landscape of tree stumps, leaves little to the imagination. In the eyes of French journalist and historian Laurent Testot it has been nothing short of cataclysmic. Originally published in French in 2017, The University of Chicago Press published the English translation at the tail-end of 2020.

Early on, Testot makes clear that environmental history as a discipline can take several forms: studying both the impact of humans on the environment, and of the environment on human affairs, as well as putting nature in a historical context. Testot does all of this in this ambitious book as he charts the exploits of Monkey – his metaphor for humanity – through seven revolutions and three million years.

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Book review – Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human

7-minute read

Where do humanity’s evolutionary roots lie? The answer has long been “in Africa”, but this idea is being challenged from various sides. I previously reviewed Begun’s The Real Planet of the Apes as a warming-up exercise before delving into this book. My conclusion was that its discussion of archaic ape evolution, although proposing that species moved back and forth between Africa and Eurasia, ultimately did not really challenge the Out of Africa hypothesis. Not so Ancient Bones. German palaeontologist Madeleine Böhme, With the help of two co-authors, journalists Rüdiger Braun and Florian Breier, firmly challenges the established narrative in an intriguing book that is as outspoken as it is readable.

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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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